Obama’s State of the Union: Give Diplomacy a Chance

Last Tuesday night, when President Obama delivered his State of Union address to Congress, he made it clear that his focus for the coming year and his second term would be to “give diplomacy a chance.” Diplomacy, he emphasized, is the best solution to our current conflicts; military might alone cannot get the job done.

Although the President did not offer any new or unexpected proposals, he did emphasize that “America must move off a permanent war footing.” Despite over eleven years in Iraq and Afghanistan, the threat of terrorism not only persists but has evolved. With this in mind, the President said he will push to bring the rest of our troops home from Afghanistan within the year and use other measures—diplomacy, specifically—as a means to solve future conflicts and problems.

The President focused, also, on the various achievements that have been made this year and in his first term through the use of diplomacy. He pointed to the successful U.S. role in beginning a peaceful process to eliminate chemical weapons in Syria. “American diplomacy, backed by the threat of force, is why Syria’s chemical weapons are being eliminated, and we will continue to work…to usher in the future the Syrian people deserve,” he said. Obama also stressed that it was because of U.S. diplomatic efforts that more than 50 countries have taken steps to prevent nuclear material from falling into the wrong hands, and allowed the U.S. to reduce its own Cold War stockpiles.

This is true; it is because of our previous bi-lateral talks with Russia and passage of the New START treaty in 2010 that the United States will reduce its nuclear arsenal to its lowest levels since the 1950s. Unfortunately, the next steps in the reductions process remain unclear. Given the cold reception in Moscow to cuts with Putin as president, it is no surprise that Obama barely mentioned anything about further US-Russia nuclear arms control.

Hoping to play off these “diplomatic success stories” as a rallying point, Obama then went full force into supporting the current Iranian deal. He stressed that if it hadn’t been for the combination of diplomacy and relentless pressure by the international community, there would be no progress towards defusing the Iranian nuclear issue. But as it happens, the U.S. did manage to sign an agreement with the P5 +1 in November, known as the Joint Plan of Action, resulting in the first meaningful constraints on Iran’s nuclear program in a decade. The President pointed out that Iran had agreed to (among other constraints):

•    Neutralize its stockpiles of uranium enriched to nearly 20% and not enrich above 5%

•    daily IAEA verification inspections at its nuclear facilities at Natanz and Fordow,

•    not install additional centrifuges

The President did acknowledge that working towards a final comprehensive deal would be difficult and that it may not be successful. He stressed that he has not been naïve in working with the Iranians, acknowledging, “We are clear-eyed about Iran’s support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah…and the mistrust between our nations cannot be wished away.” But the President urged Congress to realize that these negotiations must rely on verifiable action.

The President then reiterated his strong position against legislation that would risk undermining diplomatic efforts to ensure Iran can’t develop nuclear weapons. “If this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it. For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed.” Admittedly, this statement received the least amount of applause, given the current controversy over the Menendez-Kirk “Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act of 2013” which would impose new sanctions against Iran in the middle of the ongoing negotiations unless the President makes numerous certifications, some of which it could be impossible for the President to make. This veto threat appeared to have a swift impact, as since the State of the Union, numerous Democratic cosponsors of the bill have stated that they do not think there should be a vote on the bill anytime soon.

After the speech, the Republicans fired back that they do not oppose an agreement with Iran but that they do disagree with the first step agreement and thus feel the need to add additional sanctions to pressure Iran. But Obama argued that doing so would only hurt the ongoing talks. He did, however, guarantee that if Iran does not meet its obligations or fails to act on the opportunity for a more comprehensive agreement, he would be the first to call for more sanctions. But for now, diplomacy is the best chance we have to curtail Iran’s nuclear program.

So, to quote the President, let’s give diplomacy a chance. Success may not be guaranteed, but it is possible, and this is the best opportunity we’ve had.