David Ignatius dubbed the foreign policy section of the inaugural address the “spongiest” of the speech, but then went on to make an odd comment:
This is good rhetoric, but empty policy guidance. A listener wouldn’t have had a clue that a war is going on in Syria that has claimed over 60,000 lives, and that there is no discernible American policy to deal with it. A listener wouldn’t have known that a group called Al Qaeda still exists, let alone that it has left savage calling cards this past week in Algeria, just as it did in September in Libya.
It’s true that Obama’s second inaugural was remarkably light on discussing specific policies for the future. As an exercise, I thought it might be useful to look back at Reagan’s Second Inaugural to see how the two speeches compare. There is more to the foreign policy section of Reagan’s speech. Reagan praised the military build-up begun in his first term, touted his SDI proposal, hinted at future arms reduction, and envisioned a world without nuclear weapons. Obama was noticeably silent on all things related to arms control and arms reduction, which seems all the more significant considering how important continued arms reduction is supposed to be to him. In that respect, Reagan’s 1985 address was more specific and visionary on foreign policy issues than Obama’s speech today, but then the world was more dangerous at that time and major progress on arms control had not yet occurred.
Having said that, if all that one knew about the world in 1985 was what one heard from Reagan in his speech, one would have had no idea that the Soviets were still in Afghanistan, one would be unaware that the U.S. had been engaged in fueling a destructive civil war in Nicaragua for the past several years, and one wouldn’t have had any idea that the deployment to Lebanon Reagan had ordered had turned into a disaster. One would come away with the impression that arms control was the only issue of importance at that time. Ignatius’ complaint about the lack of a “discernible” U.S. policy towards the Syrian conflict could be a valid one, but it’s silly to say that Obama should have mentioned it today. Everyone could find a high-profile foreign policy issue that Obama neglected to mention, but that seems pointless when discussing a speech whose references to foreign policy were mostly generic boilerplate anyway.