By L. Michael Hager, co-founder and former director general, International Development Law Organization, Rome, Italy
The president's list of challenges ranged from economic disparities, immigration and generational conflict to climate change and international relations. He insisted that "every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity" and that Americans should not have to choose "between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future." The president asserted that "our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it." Adding to the theme of equality, he called for equal pay for women and equal respect for "our gay brothers and sisters." Without mentioning gun control, he said "our journey is not complete" until our children know that they are "always safe from harm."
Noting that his oath was to "God and country, not party or faction," President Obama denounced political extremists. He said "We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate." While acknowledging the right to different interpretations of liberty and different paths to happiness, he emphasized the need for collective action. "No single person can train all the math and science teachers we'll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores." He appealed to his fellow Americans: "We are made for this moment, and we will seize it -- so long as we seize it together."
In sum, the president's address was upbeat, aspirational and inspiring. In its appeal for "common action and common purpose," it mostly avoided partisan language. Critics will find it difficult to take issue with goals that are linked to documents of the founding fathers.
Yet the speech was in no way strategic. It identifies challenges, but tells us little about the president's priorities for the next four years.
Nor does it reveal where the Commander-in-Chief might take the nation on current issues of war and peace. President Obama referenced "a decade of war..now ending" and proclaimed that "enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war."
If all that is so, what will be our continuing military presence in Afghanistan? What limits if any will be placed on drone attacks and kill lists? If our wars are really ending, what is to be done with the "enemy combatants" still held in Guantanamo? Will that prison endure as a symbol of America's shameful abuse of human rights?
Will the U.S. intervene militarily in Syria? Will the president join Israel in a war on Iran if the nuclear talks there should fail? Is the Obama administration willing to advocate defense budget cuts in the face of a powerful military/industrial/ security complex? Will the president continue along the dangerous path of turning the CIA into a paramilitary force?
Just as the implementation of economic equality principles articulated by the president will require strong and courageous acton by the administration, so will his goals for achieving and maintaining peace through non-military means.
The president's supporters may hope that his upcoming State of the Union message will specify priorities and actions to advance his domestic equality goals. They may hope also that he will define his security agenda in a way that furthers the lofty ideals expressed at his second inaugural.
Hager is a co-founder and former Director General, International Development Law Organization, Rome, Italy.