Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria Likely Snubbed in Obama's State of the Union

The president's foreign policy strife pushes national security to the back seat in speech.

President Barack Obama speaks about Syria while meeting with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh Sept. 27, 2013.
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Defense and national security issues have never been a high priority for President Barack Obama in his annual remarks to the nation and the world, experts say. Only in 2012 has this commander-in-chief referenced such policies in the top three-quarters of his remarks, and that was focused on ending America's military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Such a trend will likely continue Tuesday.

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"The State of the Union is an opportunity for the president to focus on his achievements in the previous years, but also to set up an agenda for what's coming next," says Nora Bensahel, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. "I don't think he's going to put much emphasis on national security or defense issues in this State of the Union, period, Those aren't going to be issues he's going to want to prioritize this year."

In the last year, Obama did not complete a withdrawal agreement with the Afghan government, despite his 2013 promise that "America's commitment to a unified and sovereign Afghanistan will endure" after combat troops leave in 2014. Though the 3-year-old Syrian civil war bubbled up as a major foreign policy issue after Syrian President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, Obama has largely let the region languish at least in his public remarks as international negotiations remain gridlocked.Iran has succumbed to the crippling sanctions imposed on it by the U.S., U.N. and European Union, which Obama has touted consistently since 2010. Yet in the wake of some new daylight in Iran-U.S. relations, Obama will likely skip taking a victory lap inside the skeptical legislative chamber, which is still considering additional Iran sanctions.

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Instead, the president will focus most his remarks on economic strife at home, an issue at central focus for his administration and at the top of most Americans minds.

"That's what Americans are concerned about," says Larry Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense and national security expert at the Center for American Progress. "Even Americans don't support [the war in] Afghanistan anymore, and that's where the attacks on 9/11 came from."

Yet the president must address the work of America's diplomatic and military wings, which he traditionally pushes to the 60 minute mark of his one hour and 15-minute speech.

Obama will likely tip his hat to the troops' hard work in Afghanistan, and scratch the surface of Iran's agreement to stop enriching, as international negotiators monitor the Islamic republic's nuclear program for a six month interim period. He will perhaps laud Secretary of State John Kerry's efforts in leading ongoing meetings in Switzerland to broker a peace in Syria, though those talks have seized amid clashing demands from the rebels and regime.

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"If he talks about the Iran issue, he will focus on what he will consider the good news," says Bensahel, to include the forward progress of negotiations and potentially reaching an ultimate agreement. "That is very controversial, and not everyone agrees with him that this is an achievement that will be celebrated."

Many members of Congress in the audience Tuesday, including some Democrats, disagree with the president that the U.S. should withdraw any sanctions against Iran until it has agreed to cease all nuclear enrichment, not just its weaponization program.

"My guess is he's going to steer way far away from these issues in general," Bensahel says.

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