AWOL from the SOTU: Peace, Reconciliation, and Debt

On foreign policy, while the President said some good things, he missed key opportunities to say better things. In particular, he missed opportunities to promote reconciliation as an essential way of ending our wars and promoting peace. In speaking about U.S. domestic politics, the President is eloquent in his efforts to promote reconciliation, but he seems to have lost his voice in applying these ideas to our foreign policy.

The President renewed his promise to end the war in Iraq, including his promise to have all U.S. combat troops out by August, and to bring all of our troops home from Iraq. He also said we will support the Iraqi government as they hold elections, and partner with Iraqis to promote peace and prosperity. But there was a key omission here: the word "reconciliation." Hundreds of candidates have been disqualified from running in the March parliamentary election; Sunni and secular candidates have been particularly targeted. If this move is allowed to stand, reconciliation in Iraq will be imperiled, the civil war could be reignited, and Iraq's relationship with its predominantly Sunni Arab neighbors would be further strained. The U.S. is working to overturn the exclusion; by refering more explicitly to those efforts, the President could have promoted Iraqi reconciliation.

The President also renewed his promise to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan in July 2011. But here again the President missed an opportunity to say the word "reconciliation." It is virtually certain that there is no way for the President to meaningfully begin ending the war in Afghanistan by July 2011 unless there is a negotiated political settlement with the Afghan Taliban, and the Administration has begun to take the first meaningful steps in that direction.

This week - at the prodding of the U.S. - a U.N. Security Council committee announced it had lifted sanctions against five former Taliban officials, bolstering efforts to pursue peace talks with the Afghan Taliban. Administration officials say they are considering outreach to leaders of the Taliban; Vice-President Biden is said to be supportive. If the President had referred in his speech to the all-important issue of "reconciliation," it would have sent a signal to people in Afghanistan that the U.S. has opened the door to a political settlement, thereby bringing such a settlement closer.

To Iran, his message was that Iran is "more isolated" and that Iran's leaders would face "growing consequences" as they "continue to ignore their obligations." That, of course, refers to more sanctions, which the Administration knows very well have not resolved issues between Iran and the United States in the past and are very unlikely to resolve them in the future. Missing from the President's speech was any reference to his promise of diplomatic engagement with Iran. The Administration knows that at best sanctions will facilitate a negotiated political agreement with Iran, and such an agreement will be more likely if he continues to emphasize U.S. diplomatic engagement.

To the Palestinians, President Obama said nothing. This was a spectacular omission. With the possible exception of Israel, there's no country in the world more responsible than the United States for the Palestinians' current plight. This week Israel's Defense Minister said the failure to achieve a two-state peace agreement with the Palestinians was a more serious threat to Israel than Iran. Recently fifty-four Members of Congress wrote to President Obama, urging the lifting of restrictions on the movement of people, access to clean water, food, medicine construction materials for repairs and rebuilding, and fuel. Could not our President spare one word of empathy for the Palestinians? The failure of the President's efforts so far to promote a negotiated agreement between Israel and the Palestinians is also a failure to promote reconciliation - not only between Israel and the Palestinians, but also between Fatah and Hamas, without which any meaningful agreement between Israel and the Palestinians will not be possible.

On Haiti, President Obama invoked the response of Americans to the earthquake to underscore America's commitment to development and reconstruction. But here President Obama could have pledged to prioritize the speedy delivery of medical aid to Haiti over the deployment of troops, as Jesse Jackson, Danny Glover, and Harry Belafonte have called on him to do. He also missed the opportunity to talk about canceling Haiti's $1 billion external debt - half of which is claimed by the International Monetary Fund and the Inter-American Development Bank - which as the President knows, is a precondition of a meaningful plan to reconstruct Haiti. The President embraced debt cancellation in his speech - in talking about student loans. These worthy principles should be applied internationally.

The President's proposal to freeze domestic spending while leaving military spending intact is more evidence that failure to downsize the empire will undermine efforts at domestic reform. Hopefully, in the year to come, those demanding domestic reform will increasingly raise their voices against our endless wars.

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