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Column: What Obama Left Out of His Speech

Diplomacy, diplomacy, diplomacy. Partners, partners.

These were the buzzwords President Obama hammered home in the foreign policy portion of his State of the Union address, as the core of his global strategy for the next three years.

“America must move off a permanent war footing,” he said. “I strongly believe our leadership and our security cannot depend on the military alone.” Instead, we have to build “the capacity of our foreign partners” and engage in “strong and principled diplomacy.”

What the president did not address were the prerequisites for making strong diplomacy, and partnerships, work.

No one will deny that America, and the U.S. military, are war weary. The president and the U.S. public are far more focused on domestic problems — no surprise that he devoted less than a third of his speech to foreign policy. When the president mentioned help for Syria in his speech, he elicited only one lonely handclap from his audience.

Moreover, there’s no appetite (nor should there be) for sending U.S. combat troops abroad to slay more dragons. The most powerful moment of his address came when the president introduced badly injured Army Ranger Cory Remsburg, who was sitting in the gallery next to Michelle Obama; he had served 10 tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry deserve praise for their investment in talks on Iran, Syria and Israel-Palestine. Yet there was something incomplete about the case the president made for diplomacy and partnerships as the country’s main strategic tools.

With the Mideast sunk in civil war and uncertainty, and Chinese nationalism surging, America’s global role as a stabilizer is crucial. Yet allies and antagonists around the world can be excused for confusion over Obama’s brand of diplomacy, and his support (or lack of it) for troubled allies. In critical cases, Obama appears unwilling to provide the muscle required to make “strong diplomacy” work.

The president has done it right, so far, when it comes to Iran. Talks over Tehran’s nuclear program, and a six-month interim accord, are probably his greatest foreign policy success so far. (In his speech, Iran got 10 mentions, China, two.)

But the reason negotiations with Iran got off the ground, as Obama clearly states, was “American diplomacy backed by pressure” — meaning harsh economic sanctions that got Iran to the table. Yet, when it comes to Syria — where talks on the civil war will affect the Iran talks — the president seems unwilling to exert the kind of pressure that might lead to diplomatic results.

As Kerry recognized early on, neither the Assad regime, nor its allies in Moscow and Tehran, will give an inch unless they believe their client, Bashar al-Assad, might lose the battle. But Obama refused to provide military aid to more moderate Syrian rebels in 2012, when Assad was on the defensive, and pulled back from his own “red line” that promised a brief, punitive air strike if Assad used chemical weapons.

In a recent, telling interview with David Remnick of The New Yorker, the president said he believes greater U.S. involvement in arming the opposition would have made no difference. To think otherwise, he said, was “magical thinking.” Instead, Obama and Kerry (who changed his tune, as per his boss’ position) are relying on diplomatic “partner” Russia, and potential partner Iran, to see the light — meaning they will recognize the danger of continuing to support Assad.

Betting on such partners to resolve Syria’s dangerous war is indeed “magical thinking.” So is outsourcing the arming of rebels to America’s “ally,” Saudi Arabia, which ensured that Islamists would get the lion’s share of the money and guns.

Relying on such “partnerships” won’t bring the results Obama is seeking. Instead, allies and antagonists may conclude Obama is too weak to stand up for his or his allies’ positions — whether on Iran, Syria or territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

As for empowering partners, there, too, the president’s policy seems to assume results will come without putting muscle behind the effort. After our complete withdrawal from Iraq, Baghdad has sunk back into civil war fed by the return of al-Qaida. The same may happen if we leave zero troops behind in Afghanistan, with a scary impact on nuclear-armed Pakistan next door.

So what worried me in the State of the Union was not Obama’s rightful rejection of more Mideast wars, or call for more reliance on partnerships and diplomacy. It was the failure to admit that these are no panacea, and may require stronger backing than he’s been willing to provide.

This does not mean boots on the ground, but it may require more military help than drones or special forces. It will definitely require more attention from a president who has made abundantly clear that he wishes these conflicts just would go away.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for The Philadelphia Inquirer.