Editorial: U.S. State of the Union Address: Is Mr. Obama’s foreign policy at an impasse?

Barack Obama has delivered his final State of the Union Address as president of the United States. While it is a statement by the superpower’s most powerful person, it once again touted to Americans the efforts of their forefathers.

With the recent domestic terrorism by the militant group Islamic State (IS) in mind, the president said that “democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens.” He declared that “America will always act, alone if necessary, to protect our people and our allies.” But he also called for “better politics.” The speech can fairly be described as a summation of the nation’s contradictions.

The mass shooting that occurred in California in December came as a shock to Obama. It was not a large-scale organized attack like that of September 11, 2001 but rather a home-grown terrorist act by radicalized individuals, which made it especially distressing.

After the shooting, Mr. Obama displayed a strong desire to strengthen the nation’s gun laws in order to prevent such acts of terrorism. There have been calls for stronger gun control each time tragedies have occurred in the U.S., but no action has been taken. While the plea for tougher gun control may be partly an effort to check the influence of the opposition Republican Party, which strongly opposes it, the high incidence of gun crime in the U.S. is alarming.

But we wonder if Mr. Obama has a diplomatic strategy to overcome the desperate state of affairs in the Middle East that is at the root of terrorism. Unfortunately, it does not seem so from his State of the Union address.

With the lessons of the Iraq War in mind, Mr. Obama originally steered the ship of state toward less involvement in the Middle East. In last year’s State of the Union address he declared “our combat mission in Afghanistan is over.”

But the security situation in Afghanistan remains unstable, and Mr. Obama has been forced to give up on a complete pull-out of U.S. troops during his presidency. He has not made much headway in reducing the influence of IS and other Islamic extremists either, and the domestic situation in Syria is becoming increasingly chaotic.

This sense of having reached an impasse has also been reflected in public opinion polls, with 60 percent of respondents stating that they are dissatisfied with the measures Mr. Obama has taken against IS. More than half of the respondents said ground troops should be sent to the region. If that is the case, will the president go ahead and dispatch troops in order to restore his popularity? That could lead to a repeat of previous wars.

Mr. Obama will leave behind a great legacy in the form of the nuclear agreement with Iran. He is approaching Iran in an effort to get that country involved in measures to combat IS, but this has incited Saudi Arabia, another major power in the region and led to the severing of diplomatic relations between the two countries. The U.S. must clearly outline the diplomatic strategy it will use to address the chaos that will occur if it withdraws from the region.

Mr. Obama has not made good on his pledge to bring about a “world without nuclear weapons” that he made not long after his inauguration either.

His failure to lay out a specific plan for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula in his State of the Union address was a disappointment. The latest nuclear test by North Korea was the third during Mr. Obama’s presidency, and there have been no six-party talks on the nuclear problem in seven years. Something must be done right away to make it easier for the next president to assume the task of resolving nuclear issues.

In his speech, Mr. Obama, whose candidacy was supported by many minority groups, said that “democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens.” And in response to the anti-foreign rhetoric that has emerged from the battle for the Republican presidential nomination, Mr. Obama said, “When politicians insult Muslims, whether abroad or our fellow citizens, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid is called names, that doesn’t make us safer.” We agree.

Diplomatic strategy must be based on reason and intellect and crafted with level-headed decisions. We will keep a close eye on Mr. Obama during his final year in office.

(Originally published on January 14, 2016)