Finally, a Serious Discussion on Foreign Policy

After an election season lacking a serious discussion of foreign policy, the State of the Union revealed a complex outlook.

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Heather Hurlburt is the executive director of the National Security Network in Washington, D.C. Heather previously served in the Clinton administration as speechwriter to the president, and as speechwriter and policy planning staff for Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Warren Christopher. Follow her on Twitter at @NatSecHeather.

After a two year election season of deeply unserious rhetoric on national security, followed by the even more painful Hill codas of the Benghazi witchhunt and Hagel confirmation bloodletting, the State of the Union's national security references came as a pleasant surprise.

Not so much for the topics: a widely-expected drawdown in Afghanistan, an executive order mimicking a stalled Senate bill on counterterrorism, strong restatements of current policy on Iran and North Korea and Israel. But for the ambiguities it acknowledged: ambiguities Americans know about but are unaccustomed to hearing about in our politics.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

Obama said the words that counterterrorism professionals—as well as liberals and libertarians—have been muttering to themselves about targeted killings:

I recognize that in our democracy, no one should just take my word that we're doing things the right way. So, in the months ahead, I will continue to engage with Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.

And the words that people in countries visited by America's good intentions mutter to themselves, as do American citizens, who love democracy but are reliably skeptical of efforts to impose it on others:

The process will be messy, and we cannot presume to dictate the course of change in countries like Egypt…

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

When sequester was created 18 months ago, part of Congress's theory was that Pentagon spending was inviolable, and the threat of cutting it would pull both parties into line. Obama echoed what the public and national security leaders say—it's not that simple:

Now, some in this Congress have proposed preventing only the defense cuts by making even bigger cuts to things like education and job training; Medicare and Social Security benefits. That idea is even worse. Yes, the biggest driver of our long-term debt is the rising cost of health care for an aging population. And those of us who care deeply about programs like Medicare must embrace the need for modest reforms – otherwise, our retirement programs will crowd out the investments we need for our children, and jeopardize the promise of a secure retirement for future generations.

Will media coverage pause over these hints of complexity? Probably not. Will they begin to alter the way we talk and think about the exceedingly complex world we live in—will they push us to match our political rhetoric to the level of complexity our fellow-citizens already understand and expect?  Let's hope so.