No change for American foreign policy

Focusing on the domestic issues, Obama turns his back on the Middle East

President Obama signs autographs after the State of the Union address. Photo: Mandel Ngan / AFP
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Despite his boasts that the US has turned a page, Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech underlined that we can expect talk rather than change when it comes to foreign policy challenges such as those in Syria. In his years in office, Mr Obama has failed to make good even on his campaign promises: remember the pledge to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp? Think back to the “new beginning” he promised the Muslim world in Cairo in 2009. Consider the parlous state of the non-peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. In foreign policy terms then, almost the only real achievement of the Obama administration is the thawing of more than half-a-century of cold war frost with Cuba.

Here in this region, the continuation of Mr Obama’s policy in Syria is troublesome. He appears to be fixated on defeating ISIL at the expense of directly confronting the murderous regime of Bashar Al Assad. This has led America into a dangerous alliance with various extremist groups. Not only does this policy give rise to the possibility of blowback when the Syrian conflict finally ends, it also plays directly into the hands of the Assad regime. The refusal to change course suggests that the escalating conflict that has left nearly 200,000 Syrians dead, triggered one of the largest refugee crises in recent history and drawn in regional and world powers, will outlast the Obama presidency.

One of the traditional measures of the success (or otherwise) of an American president’s State of the Union address is how much it reframes the debate.

Domestically, Mr Obama seems to have done just that, taking a combative position on taxing the rich and tackling America’s spiralling economic inequality. It is fitting that this is the centrepiece of his domestic agenda because he once described the widening gap between rich and poor as the “defining challenge of our time”. But what about foreign policy and the promise to rewrite America’s relationship with the Muslim world?

Far from starting a new chapter, the United States seems doomed to a stilted, strategically limited role on the world stage. Even if as Mr Obama said, America really has turned a page, it’s still on the same old storyline – and that’s not a very good way to close the book on his legacy.