President Obama, in his annual state of the union speech, defended six years of pacifist, diplomacy-dominated national security policies that he portrayed as aimed at defeating new threats and protecting the planet.
During a joint session of Congress, Obama stressed the economic recovery after the late-2000s recession. And he sought to promote his domestic policy agenda of providing paid sick and maternity leave and free community college.
The president, in a more than hour-long address, provided passing references to new and major foreign policy threats facing the country and American interests abroad, such as the emergence of the al Qaeda offshoot terror group Islamic State (IS), an expansionist Russia under neo-fascist leader Vladimir Putin, and China’s increasingly aggressive posture in Asia.
"The American people expect us to only go to war as a last resort, and I intend to stay true to that wisdom," Obama said.
On Asia, Obama made no mention of increasing Chinese military assertiveness in the South China Sea and East China Sea, where Beijing is locked in a political conflict over territorial claims in resource-rich waters.
"In the Asia Pacific, we are modernizing alliances while making sure that other nations play by the rules – in how they trade, how they resolve maritime disputes, and how they participate in meeting common international challenges like nonproliferation and disaster relief," Obama said.
Echoing a key theme of his administration, the president also said "no challenge poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change."
The president defended climate scientists who have been challenged by scientists who have dismissed alarmist views on climate change.
Obama also said as part of efforts to respect human dignity, he has "prohibited torture," "constrained" the use of drone strikes, and spoken out against "deplorable anti-Semitism" that has resurfaced in parts of the world.
He added that "we continue to reject offensive stereotypes of Muslims – the vast majority of whom share our commitment to peace."
Obama also said that as part of efforts to close the prison holding terrorists in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, he has released half of the detainees, and called for releasing the rest to "finish the job" of closing the facility.
On the issue of civil liberties, Obama said he is also trying to make U.S. intelligence surveillance more transparent and is seeking to add safeguards against abuse.
The administration’s national security policies were outlined by the president as forward looking, using force wisely, and "making sure we match our power with diplomacy," Obama said.
The president, who is among the most partisan of modern leaders, also appealed for greater cooperation among people of different political views.
On his national security agenda, the president asked "will we approach the world fearful and reactive, dragged into costly conflicts that strain our military and set back our standing? Or will we lead wisely, using all elements of our power to defeat new threats and protect our planet?"
The president said his first duty as commander-in-chief of the U.S. military is to protect the country and that "in doing so, the question is not whether America leads in the world, but how."
"I believe in a smarter kind of American leadership," Obama will say. "We lead best when we combine military power with strong diplomacy; when we leverage our power with coalition building; when we don’t let our fears blind us to the opportunities that this new century presents. That’s exactly what we’re doing right now – and around the globe, it is making a difference."
Under Obama, the U.S. military has been hit with hundreds of billions of dollars in defense spending cuts as part of the plan to divert defense spending to domestic programs. First, the Pentagon was hit with $478 billion in cuts over 10 years beginning in the president’s first term. An additional cut of more than $500 billion was then imposed by Congress as part of a budget deal known as sequestration.
The spending cuts have created a crisis within the military services, which are scrambling to match limited dollars to operations and weapons programs.
Overseas, the president’s approach to foreign terrorist threats saw the emergence last year of a new terrorist threat in the al Qaeda offshoot known as the Islamic State (also known as ISIL or ISIS).
Obama said he opposes sending troops in response to "rash decisions" that are a reaction to headlines.
"When the first response to a challenge is to send in our military – then we risk getting drawn into unnecessary conflicts, and neglect the broader strategy we need for a safer, more prosperous world,’ he said. "That’s what our enemies want us to do."
The Obama administration appeared to react rashly and out of humanitarian concerns, not strategic interests, in supplying arms to Libyan rebels that ousted strongman Moammar Gadhafi from power in Libya in 2011. Today, however, the oil-rich North African country is on the verge of becoming a failed state dominated by Islamist radicals.
Obama said he believes in "smarter" U.S. leadership that combines military power with "strong diplomacy" and "coalition building."
He also called for not letting "our fears blind us to the opportunities that this new century presents."
"That’s exactly what we’re doing right now – and around the globe, it is making a difference," he said.
Obama said the United States supports those around the world targeted by terrorists and vowed "we will continue to hunt down terrorists and dismantle their networks, and we reserve the right to act unilaterally, as we’ve done relentlessly since I took office to take out terrorists who pose a direct threat to us and our allies."
On Afghanistan, Obama said that instead of U.S. troops patrolling its valleys, U.S.-trained Afghan security forces are doing that mission.
"Instead of sending large ground forces overseas, we’re partnering with nations from South Asia to North Africa to deny safe haven to terrorists who threaten America," he said.
"In Iraq and Syria, American leadership – including our military power – is stopping ISIL’s advance," Obama added, noting that a "broad coalition," including several Arab states, is battling Islamic State terrorists.
"We’re also supporting a moderate opposition in Syria that can help us in this effort, and assisting people everywhere who stand up to the bankrupt ideology of violent extremism," he said.
The battle against IS will take time and require a long effort but Obama said "we will succeed" and called on Congress to pass a new resolution authorizing the use of force against the terror group.
The president also defended his conciliatory approach to foreign affairs that emphasizes sanctions over force, something he said was "demonstrating the power of American strength and diplomacy."
"We’re upholding the principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small – by opposing Russian aggression, supporting Ukraine’s democracy, and reassuring our NATO allies," he said.
American sanctions against Russia for its military takeover of Ukraine’s key industrial region of the Crimea showed that America "stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated, with its economy in tatters."
"That’s how America leads – not with bluster, but with persistent, steady resolve," he said.
The president also defended his policy of seeking to normalize relations with communist Cuba. He asserted the changes in the hardline policy against Cuba’s repressive regime were a change from a policy that was "long past its expiration date."
He called on Congress to end the embargo.
On Iran, Obama said U.S. diplomacy with Tehran has "halted the progress of its nuclear program and reduced its stockpile of nuclear material."
"Between now and this spring, we have a chance to negotiate a comprehensive agreement that prevents a nuclear-armed Iran; secures America and our allies – including Israel; while avoiding yet another Middle East conflict," he said, adding that there are no guarantees the talks with Iran will succeed and that all U.S. options for dealing with Iran remain on the table.
He urged Congress not to impose new sanctions on Iran, arguing that doing so would "all but guarantee that diplomacy fails."
Congressionally-imposed sanctions would alienate America from its allies and lead to Iran resuming its nuclear program. Obama said he would veto new Iran sanctions legislation.
Iran is continuing to enrich uranium in violation of International Atomic Energy Agency agreements.
In a section on cyber threats to vulnerable information networks, Obama called for strengthening cyber security.
"No foreign nation, no hacker, should be able to shut down our networks, steal our trade secrets, or invade the privacy of American families, especially our kids," he said.
However, the White House has said that it favors passive and defensive measures against cyber threats and opposes using U.S. military or intelligence cyber power for attacks on foreign states like China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea that are known to be developing sophisticated cyber attacks.
The last major cyber operation reportedly carried out by the United States was the so-called Stuxnet computer worm that was used to sabotage industrial control systems inside Iran’s covert uranium enrichment program.
"We are making sure our government integrates intelligence to combat cyber threats, just as we have done to combat terrorism," Obama said.
"And tonight, I urge this Congress to finally pass the legislation we need to better meet the evolving threat of cyber-attacks, combat identity theft, and protect our children’s information."
Many in Congress have balked at passing cyber security legislation over privacy concerns.
"If we don’t act, we’ll leave our nation and our economy vulnerable," Obama will say. "If we do, we can continue to protect the technologies that have unleashed untold opportunities for people around the globe."
The Republican response, given by new Sen. Joni Ernst (R., Iowa), a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard, contained few references to Obama administration policies.
"The forces of violence and oppression don’t care about the innocent," Ernst said. "We need a comprehensive plan to defeat them.
Rep. Mac Thornberry (R., Texas), the new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, sounded a harsher note in response to the president’s speech.
"Our national security, and the relative peace we earned after the Cold War, is in danger," Thornberry said in a statement.
Thornberry noted the growing dangers that surfaced hours before the speech, including a new travel warning for Libya, and a potential Iranian-backed coup in Yemen, on the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula.
"It’s been a busy day for the Obama Doctrine," he said. "Reality has overtaken the wishful thinking on Pennsylvania Avenue."
"President Obama has not adequately addressed our national security needs," Thornberry said. "He told us terrorism was on the run. He pulled back America’s presence in places like Iraq and restricted our presence in Yemen. That's allowed much greater dangers to be pulled into that void."
A lack of American leadership has created a breeding ground for groups like IS and al Qaeda and is allowing Iran to gain influence in the Middle East.
"The failure of our strategy in places like Yemen, Iraq, and Syria is what gives members who are concerned about the wide release of Guantanamo Bay detainees pause," Thornberry said.