President Obama, with Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner in the background, delivers his 2015 State of the Union address to Congress, on January 20, 2015.

President Obama, with Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner in the background, delivers his 2015 State of the Union address to Congress, on January 20, 2015. Mandel Ngan/AP

Obama: ‘Shadow of Crisis Has Passed’ As It Hangs Over US Foreign Policy

Under fire after security crises across the globe, President Obama takes the toughest line in American politics: stay the course. Is it the right one? By Molly O’Toole

President Barack Obama promised to end his predecessor’s wars and foreign policy of force and staked his legacy to fulfilling that promise. But in his State of the Union address to Congress on Tuesday night, Obama promised that “the shadow of crisis has passed,” even as conflicts continue to pop up across the globe.

“We are fifteen years into this new century. Fifteen years that dawned with terror touching our shores; that unfolded with a new generation fighting two long and costly wars,” Obama began. “But tonight, we turn the page.”

From the new U.S. role in Afghanistan to renewed tensions with Russia, from the rise of militant extremism in Iraq and Syria to the attacks on the streets of Paris, the threat of terrorism and global conflict is no shadow, but a grim and tangible reality facing Obama in the last two years of his presidency.

“Tonight, for the first time since 9/11, our combat mission in Afghanistan is over. Six years ago, nearly 180,000 American troops served in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Obama said. “Today, fewer than 15,000 remain.”

In a tacit acknowledgement of the fragility of Afghanistan’s transition, some 10,000 U.S. troops remain in the country, and Gen. John Campbell, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said last week there is some indication the Islamic State is recruiting there.

Obama has also authorized a barrage of roughly 1,700 air strikes since August to counter the rise of the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria. He has approved some 3,000 U.S. troops to train Iraqi security forces and protect American personnel and facilities. All told, another roughly 1,000 could deploy to conduct and support the Pentagon mission to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels to serve as something of a ground force in Syria. All of this has cost upwards of $1.25 billion, so far.

Obama has pledged that it will not be American boots on the ground -- he is adamantly sticking to the mantra that America cannot do the fighting for everyone, and the U.S. military is not the answer to every foreign policy problem.

“In Iraq and Syria, American leadership – including our military power – is stopping ISIL’s advance.  Instead of getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, we are leading a broad coalition, including Arab nations, to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group,” he said.

“This effort will take time.  It will require focus.  But we will succeed.  And tonight, I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL.”

Obama defended his national security strategy, even as critics -- particularly the Republican lawmakers in the audience -- have spent much of the day, past year, and really, his presidency, citing each foreign policy setback as evidence of its failure. In the face of this criticism and a palpable anxiety that has spiked since the recent terrorist attacks in Europe, Obama argued against foreign policy shaped by fear, saying, “The American people expect us to only go to war as a last resort, and I intend to stay true to that wisdom.”

"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?” he asked, later answering: “I believe in a smarter kind of American leadership.”