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January 23, 2012

SOTU dreaming on a winter's day
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

Imagine if the state of the union began:

“My fellow Americans, the state of our bailed-out auto industry is strong – in fact, sales of American cars overseas is driving private-sector job creation here at home, and General Motors passed Toyota last year to become again the world’s largest automaker.”

Or this:

“My fellow Americans, one thing we can agree on, from Wall Street to Occupy Wall Street, is that we need a healthy banking sector lending money to large and small business to fuel our recovery.  And our banks are closely linked to Europe’s banks.  This year, one of the top three things I will do to keep our recovery going is to make sure that our European friends get their act together and right their banking sector – with our help if necessary. For 45 years of Cold War Americans and Europeans stood together knowing that a war that started in Central Europe would not end there.  What was true of our values then is true of our prosperity today.

Or this:

Sitting next to my wife Michelle tonight is Gene Sharp.  Most Americans have probably never heard of him, but his work on non-violent change, in the great American tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King, has made him well-known among the Tunisian, Egyptian, Yemeni and Syrian [and, if I really get going into dreamland, Bahraini] citizens who risked their lives to demand freedom and dignity. His lifetime commitment to helping others claim for themselves freedoms we too often take for granted is something of which every American can be proud – and by which every one of us can be inspired to again make our country all that it can be.

TB resistant to every antibiotic now existing could enter the US on a flight from India any day. The way to fight it is the same way we’ve controlled smallpox and polio in the past, and H1N1 and other diseases today – combining the funds and expertise of our Centers for Disease Control with the funds and expertise of the World Health Organization, Global Fund for AIDS, TB and Malaria and other international health organizations that can bring the fight where the disease is – before it ever lands in the US.

What do all these dreamy paragraphs have in common?  They situate the Obama Administration’s considerable foreign policy and national security achievements in Americans’ daily reality.  They also do the same for the sharpest national security disagreements buried in the campaign rhetoric:

Why do we talk to our enemies? Because that’s how you get things done, in a fine tradition from Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan.

Why should we include our military budget in financial sacrifice? Because investments that safeguard Americans’ security and prosperity are critically-needed in economic growth, health and education.

Why does an America that walks its talk, even on hard issues like giving fair trials to people suspected of repugnant terror crimes, matter?  Why is the Golden Rule a vital source of our strength rather than an outmoded cliché? Because in a global media age, the world can see us talking and walking, and it’s those images that matter, whether it’s democracy activists in Tunisia, the mother of a Nigerian terrorist convincing her son to cooperate with law enforcement, an Al Jazeera correspondent who says she’d rather face a US court than an Iranian one, or Afghan villagers who must make a split-second decision about whether to help or harm US soldiers they encounter.

Taking a few steps back from debates about talking to the Taliban and bombing Iran would open windows to a worldview in which those decisions come more naturally – because they’re part of the same architecture that leads us to cooperate and compete with China; help Japan recover from its earthquake even as we try to surpass its auto companies; and work with democratic allies with whom we sometimes strongly disagree from Europe to Brazil to Israel. 

But I haven’t been out of government so long as to be naïve about this.  As I’ve written before, the exercise of writing the national security/foreign policy section of a president’s State of the Union is one you could market to masochists.  Hundreds of versions of dozens of paragraphs, slowly edged out by domestic priorities and whittled away by political consultants, down to a sad few paragraphs on wars, troops and –always – a nod to trade. What I’ve just done is rough out an oil painting.  Election-year messaging, rather, is somewhere between street graffiti and Etch-a-Sketch – quick, bright, simple, impermanent.



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