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President Barack Obama signs a series of executive orders, including one closing of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Thursday, Jan. 22, 2009, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. (Charles Dharapak/AP/Charles Dharapak/AP)
President Barack Obama signs a series of executive orders, including one closing of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Thursday, Jan. 22, 2009, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. (Charles Dharapak/AP/Charles Dharapak/AP)

State of the Union (1)

Pragmatic Obama set to defend foreign policy Add to ...

He bagged the Nobel Peace Prize and killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

On his watch, the last American combat soldier marched out of Iraq while he massively escalated the “right war” – the one in Afghanistan where a surge of American troops tripled to Soviet-era levels of 100,000-plus.

Barack Obama, hailed into office by a world eager to embrace his promises of “hope and change” has proved a tough, unconventional warrior. In today's State of the Union, a war-toughened commander-in-chief will defend his unfinished presidency even as he points to a 21st century with America still pre-eminent.

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Already, many of the hopes – perhaps rose-tinted and unrealistic – that he would usher in a new era of power projection have faded.

Three years on, the President has shown himself a multilateralist when it suits American interests. He is far keener on missile-firing drones than “boots on the ground.”

Winning “hearts and minds,” once the cornerstone strategy not just for successful counterinsurgency warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq, has been jettisoned in favour of hard-nosed exit strategies.

Early and high-minded pledges to shutter Guantanamo and put Khalid Sheik Mohammed, self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept 11 attacks, on trial in a federal court in New York City have been sacrificed on the alter of political expediency. Guantanamo remains open, and the rarely seen “high-value” terrorist suspects will face trial – if at all – by military war-crimes tribunals.

Mr. Obama gave a succinct summation of his own foreign-policy performance after Moammar Gadhafi, the brutal Libyan dictator – and variously American ally and adversary – was captured and killed last summer.

``We’ve taken out al-Qaeda leaders and we’ve put them on the path to defeat. We’re winding down the war in Iraq and have begun a transition in Afghanistan. And now working in Libya with friends and allies, we’ve demonstrated what collective action can achieve in the 21st century.”

Libya was Mr. Obama’s first foray into “leading from behind,” the still vague Obama doctrine where American missiles, warplanes and drones provide much of the firepower while staying below the horizon. With a Canadian air force general commanding and British and French fighter-bombers deliberately hogging the spotlight, the Libyan war avoided any appearance of yet another U.S. conflict in a Muslim state.

“Without putting a single U.S. service member on the ground, we achieved our objectives,” Mr. Obama said. Victory came without (American) bloodshed or the taint of “foreign” occupation.

But Libya proved an outlier, rather than a doctrine. As uprisings swept across the Arab world, pragmatism trumped principle.

In Egypt, Mr. Obama flexed America’s considerable muscle to back pro-democracy protesters and oust long-time ally Hosni Mubarak. But in Bahrain, the President did nothing as Saudi tanks crushed a mostly Shia uprising. America’s Fifth Fleet is home-ported in Bahrain and fears of Tehran spreading its influence trumped any desire for democracy.

Mr. Obama has also shown a ruthless side. He ordered the first-ever targeted assassination – by a missile-firing drone – of an American citizen, the al-Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, setting off a firestorm of protests from rights groups. Relations with Hamid Karzai, whose shaky regime in Kabul is propped up by American money and guns, have soured. Getting out of Afghanistan, rather than building a stable, civil, society has become the goal. And talking to the Taliban is part of the exit strategy. As for nuclear-armed Pakistan – perhaps the most dangerous place on Earth – Mr. Obama’s tough, death-by-drones tactics and the hugely embarrassing raid that killed Mr. bin Laden have left relations in tatters.

In Israel, Mr. Obama is regarded as the least supportive American President in decades. The peace process remains mired and gets little attention in Washington.

Mr. Obama’s early offer of an “open hand” to Tehran was slapped away by the Islamic theocracy and – for all of his announced intention to pivot American policy to focus on the Pacific – the President heads into the last year of his first term with Iran looming as his trickiest, perhaps toughest, test.

“The United States has core national-security interests in making sure that Iran doesn't possess a nuclear weapon and it stops exporting terrorism outside of its borders,” Mr. Obama said. So far, the multi-pronged effort to thwart Iran’s murky nuclear ambitions have included a cyber attack on uranium-enriching centrifuges, the mysterious killings of scientists and a slew of sanctions. But if a nuclear-armed Tehran is really a red line, then the President faces tougher choices ahead.

With his Republican rivals seeking to outflank him with far more hawkish threats against Tehran, Mr. Obama must get tough on Iran without tipping the entire Persian Gulf into a regional war.

Follow on Twitter: @PaulKoring

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