Beinart was struck by how little of it there was:
It’s easy to understand why Obama blew by the subject so quickly. For seven years, his State of the Union speeches have portrayed a nation moving from danger to safety, war to peace. And now, in his final year in office, he’s not only stopped telling Americans they are safer. He’s declaring war.
It’s not surprising that Obama devoted so much of the foreign-policy section of his speech to Cuba. He clearly hoped that by this point in his presidency he’d be taking a victory lap not only for the recession he overcame but for the wars he brought to a close. Now, instead of ending hot wars, he has to be content ending a cold one.
Fred Kaplan delivers a reality check:
It’s true, as he proclaimed, that American leadership and air power are “stopping” the advances of ISIS jihadists in Iraq and Syria, and that’s no small achievement. But his ultimate aim in those countries (“the broader strategy” that he said he’s pursuing “for a safer, more prosperous world”) is baffling.
Again, this is no surprise: He’s battling the extremists of ISIS, while advocating the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who’s also battling ISIS; he also says he’s “supporting a moderate opposition in Syria,” while standing by as Assad mows down its fledgling fighters. There is no clear strategy here, only a holding action. And his “broad coalition, including Arab nations,” is faltering because the interests of some of those Arab nations differ so markedly from our own.
Larison’s biggest complaint:
Obama had the gall to say this: “The American people expect us to only go to war as a last resort, and I intend to stay true to that wisdom.” The trouble I have with this is that it is very clearly not how Obama has governed so far. I assume that he won’t launch a preventive war against Iran at this point, but Obama’s record hardly inspires confidence on this score. The U.S. didn’t go to war in Libya as a last resort. Nor has the war against ISIS been waged as a last resort. Nor would airstrikes on Syria in 2013 have been launched as a last resort.
I think Obama’s pragmatism obscures his real failures on unilateral, executive branch war-making (with disastrous consequences), on basic accountability for war crimes, on closing GTMO, and empowering JSOC and the CIA to new heights of power and independence. He can’t admit that the war on ISIL was indeed a war of choice that once again inserted the US into a sectarian civil war best left to those directly threatened.