Looking Inward

Obama Stresses Nation Building at Home Over Nation Building Abroad

In his State of the Union address, the president makes clear that nation building overseas no longer is a U.S. priority, suggests American power will not be a decisive factor in events like the Arab Spring, and remains deliberately vague on Iran.

01.25.12 4:06 AM ET

Historians will likely study the Arab Spring for decades, but President Obama began framing the upheaval in the Middle East in his State of the Union tonight. He said, “As the tide of war recedes, a wave of change has washed across the Middle East and North Africa, from Tunis to Cairo, from Sana to Tripoli.”

That phrase implies that the American exit from Iraq, a war that President Bush had hoped would birth the modern Arab world’s first democracy, has given way to a new era marked by the fall of dictators.

Republicans will likely point out that until this fall, the United States had been negotiating for a small U.S. military presence to remain in Iraq. But the broader point is clear. In a speech in which Obama got applause for promising to do more “nation building at home,” nation building abroad is no longer a U.S. priority.

To be sure, Obama says he hopes the Arab Spring will lead to a new democratic era, but he makes clear that American power is not the decisive factor in whether that will happen. “While it is ultimately up to the people of the region to decide their fate, we will advocate for those values that have served our own country so well,” he said.

Obama also bragged that his administration’s multilateral diplomacy is isolating Iran’s leaders. Privately, administration officials say the president’s offer for diplomacy in 2009 helped persuade Europe, Russia, and China to begin enforcing sanctions against Iran.

But while there is more economic pressure on Iran today (the European Union just announced a plan to reduce oil imports from Iran this week), Obama’s public demands of Iran are less specific.

In his 2008 State of the Union address, Bush said, “Our message to the leaders of Iran is also clear: Verifiably suspend your nuclear enrichment so negotiations can begin. And to rejoin the community of nations, come clean about your nuclear intentions and past actions, stop your oppression at home, cease your support for terror abroad.”

Compare that with Obama’s words Tuesday evening. “Let there be no doubt: America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal. But a peaceful resolution of this issue is still possible, and far better, and if Iran changes course and meets its obligations, it can rejoin the community of nations.”

Where Bush spells out what the change of course for Iran should be, Obama is deliberately vague.