President Obama’s last State of the Union overlooks Afghanistan

United States’ President Barack Obama delivered his last sensational State of the Union address on Jan. 12. To many at home and abroad, it was a pleasing speech that garnered several standing ovations and applauses in the joint congressional session. To many others, however, the speech was generic and did not meet their expectations. In Afghanistan, too, the president’s speech was looked up on skeptically.

Domestically, the speech received mixed reactions. In an interview with Rachel Maddow of MSNBC, presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Democrat from the state of Vermont, praised the president’s handling of the issue of climate change and his speaking out against money in politics. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote that “.@POTUS [President Obama] has kept the economy strong and the country safe.” Actress Kerry Washington also applauded the president’s speech in a tweet.

In an interview with USA TODAY, House Speaker Paul Ryan called the address a “fairly typical speech for president” and said that Obama “glossed over the economy and … foreign policy failures.” Others criticized Obama for not talking about the Black Lives Matter movement.

Should Obama have spoken more about Afghanistan? I think so, because he just barely mentioned Afghanistan in reference to the chronic conflict that may go on for decades to come. However, we should also note that the foremost responsibility of the president is to ensure order at home, and that is exactly what Obama did. He focused on domestic politics.

The State of the Union address is an opportunity for the sitting U.S. president to report on how America is doing as a union, what the nation’s priorities are, and how they foresee the president and country achieving said priorities.

The U.S. priorities are its own domestic dilemmas. According to CNN, 400,000 Americans have died as a result of gun violence and firearms across the U.S. since 9/11. Some 6,000 Americans have died in Afghanistan and Iraq combined.

The U.S. is ranked 19th in the 2014 edition of The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Index of Democracy below two developing countries, Mauritius and Uruguay. The nation’s democracy ranking is in decline due to the issue of money in politics, as exemplified by the influence of political action committees (also known as super PACs) when few rich people and corporations fund campaign trails of their choice, and subsequently influence policies dear to them when their favorite candidate is elected to office.

That to say, in his State of the Union speech, Obama also realized that foreign affairs matter. He referred to the Islamic State group, the Ebola pandemic and climate change.  The president proposed a new approach to the American leadership at the global stage in the lights of multilateralism: “…On issues of global concern, we will mobilize the world to work with us, and make sure other countries pull their own weight.”

Should President Obama have talked more about Afghanistan? Yes. However, we should examine Obama’s priorities within the context of real terms. The U.S. must prioritize its domestic concerns. Foreign policy and alliances come second. Obama’s constituency resides in the neighborhoods of Chicago and New York, not in the alleyways of Kabul or Kandahar.

That being said, the U.S. Department of State issued a statement in which it reaffirmed its commitment to Afghanistan on the same day as the president’s speech. The U.S. has also shown great interest in the Afghan reconciliation process and has taken part in quadrilateral talks between the U.S., Afghanistan, China and Pakistan, aimed at establishing a framework for peace process.

The hope is that the U.S. will not abandon the Afghans again, if for no other reasons than the investment it has made in the country, in terms of both blood and treasure, and shared threats from extremist groups. Afghanistan too needs to “pull their weight” through “better politics” and good governance, including avoiding tribal feuds and tackling corruption, in order to break it from dependency.


Said Sabir Ibrahimi

Research Associate for the Center of International Cooperation at New York University Recent graduate in Political Science and Communications at Fairleigh Dickinson University, former collaborator for the UK Department for International Development, former collaborator for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Afghanistan, participant at the Model United Nations in Düsseldorf and at the United Nations Youth Assembly in New York. "As a curious and responsible global citizen, I would like to write about issues pertaining to humanity and in particular the politics of the South Asian region and the U.S."