by Jules Witcover

President Obama's first State of the Union address of his second term, following in the fashion of his second inaugural address, focused on the state of the nation at home: the need for more jobs and a revived middle class, as well as such specifics as immigration reform and steps against gun violence.

Another significant Obama objective was little discussed during the presidential campaign, by either side. That was his determination to pivot away from the foreign-policy overreaching of the eight years preceding his first inauguration in 2009.

Obama was elected in 2008 to a considerable degree on his promise to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said then, and continued to say as president, that this country had no choice after the 9/11 terrorist attacks but to retaliate against al-Qaida, which was harbored in Afghanistan. He also said then that the invasion of Iraq was a war of choice by George W. Bush, based on faulty intelligence about the existence of weapons of mass destruction there that were never found.

Upon election, Obama set out to extricate the United States from that war and to redirect the military involvement in Afghanistan away from counterinsurgency and nation-building to counterterrorism, which was the original focus in responding to 9/11.

Obama's first term saw significant progress in both arenas. The major American combat role was concluded in Iraq, and the current withdrawal of Obama's own controversial surge of combat troops in Afghanistan is well underway, to be completed by the end of 2014.

At the same time, the Obama administration re-embraced collective action as the proper response to military threats abroad, through NATO and the United Nations, rather than going it alone and arm-twisting allies into "coalitions of the willing," as the junior Bush did.

When it came to the international push to depose Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi, Obama let the French and British take the lead, with American air power playing a secondary and supporting role, without the dispatch of U.S. military forces on the ground. Criticized for "leading from behind," Obama chose not to become further entangled in a third hot war, while meeting American obligations through collective action.

The president was able to navigate this course away from the more muscular and provocative path of misadventure taken by the previous administration. He did so while repairing America's good standing with the international community tarnished by his predecessor's Wild West cowboy approach to foreign entanglements.

Currently, Obama's pivot away from that recent past in U.S. foreign policy is under heavy attack for his failure to intervene militarily in the civil war in Syria, which has taken 60,000 or more lives and caused a huge exodus of refugees into neighboring states.

Obama is said to have based his decision on concern that American arms would not be decisive and risked falling into the hands of terrorists and other anti-U.S. elements. Two strong voices in the administration, retiring Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Gen. Martin Dempsey, as well as just-retired Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and retired CIA chief David Petraeus, all reportedly supported the dispatch of U.S. arms to Syria but nonetheless fell in line with Obama's decision to the contrary.

This underscores Obama's determination to continue combating global threats to security while not losing sight of pressing demands on American resources at home. Whether demeaned as leading from behind or ridiculed for reprising the late George McGovern's call of "Come Home, America," Obama's resetting of foreign policy is a major part of the State of the Union in 2013, for all of his focus on the travails the nation faces at home.

Taking this stand is a risk -- and would be to any Democratic president in light of the Republicans' longstanding tradition of attacking Democrats for being soft on national security and defense. Thus, Obama's task in his second term is to meet the nation's international obligations responsibly within the context of the demands of a troubled economy and society within our own borders.


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State of the Union, At Home and Abroad | Politics

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