Barack Obama - AFP - 26012012
U.S. President Barack Obama addressing Congress earlier this year. Photo by AFP
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WASHINGTON - What Barack Obama said in his State of the Union speech didn't really matter to his rivals in the 2012 presidential race. Some of them had dismissed his words hours before he even entered the chamber packed with Congress members and dignitaries. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney called it a speech of a "desperate" president - an ironic choice of words, considering Romney's own dramatic loss to Newt Gingrich in South Carolina last Saturday. In his address, Obama stressed bipartisanship again and again, yet it was unmistakable election talk. He started his speech with a reminder that he had fulfilled a promise to pull out the troops from Iraq, went on to mention the killing of Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and also wrapped up the speech with a reference to the same operation.

In an election focused on the economy, it could seem like an odd choice, but Obama's team is well aware of the fact that the president's foreign policy is difficult to attack since he outflanked his critics on the right, doubling the drone attacks and eliminating dozens of Al-Qaida operatives. As if to provide yet more proof of the effectiveness of his foreign policy, early Wednesday morning before the president departed for his post-speech tour of the swing states, U.S. Navy SEALs parachuted into Somalia, killed nine kidnappers and freed two hostages.

But betting on the success of commando operations is dangerous for a president as some of Obama's predecessors have discovered when something goes wrong. The speech contained a few questionable and controversial contentions - like Obama's claim that the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan began "from a position of strength" or that "the Taliban's momentum has been broken." Of course Obama didn't fail to mention the demise of Libya's dictator, said he had "no doubt" that the Assad regime in Syria "will soon discover that the forces of change can't be reversed and that human dignity can't be denied," but said nothing about about how many Syrian victims the U.S. is ready to tolerate until the regime falls. Putting faith in international cooperation might well pay off but only to a certain extent, as the Arab league mission to Syria and the Iranian sanctions illustrate.

Obama's soft spots

For the Republicans, Iran and Israel are still the two favorite soft spots in Obama's foreign policy. So, for instance, at Monday's Republican debate in Tampa, Florida, Newt Gingrich, referring to Iran's threats to close the Straits of Hormuz, said: "The most dangerous possible thing which, by the way, Barack Obama just did - the Iranians are practicing closing the Straits of Hormuz, actively taunting us, so he cancels a military exercise with the Israelis so as not to be provocative." It didn't matter that the Israelis were the ones to ask to postpone the exercise, and the Israeli Ambassador in Washington Michael Oren said that the decision was "taken jointly by the European Command (EUCOM ) and by the IDF" and "stemmed solely from technical issues", "not reflecting political or strategic concerns."

Obama could not entirely omit Iran and Israel from his speech. "America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal," said the president."But a peaceful resolution of this issue is still possible, and far better, and if Iran changes course and meets its obligations, it can rejoin the community of nations."

Obama also said, "our iron-clad commitment to Israel's security has meant the closest military cooperation between our two countries in history." No mention of the peace process.

The issue might come to the forefront again in a week-and-a-half with the visit of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to Washington (depending on who will finally agree to meet with him ). But most likely, this toxic topic will be left to other administration officials in an election year. On Monday, it was the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, who provided some background at a meeting with American Jewish Committee where she explained that the Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN is pretty much stuck. "I presume that is because the Palestinians decided that given the likely outcome in the council, it wasn't timely to push it to a vote," said Rice.

The sublime and the ridiculous

Two moments that were impossible to ignore this week. One was deeply touching, with Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords attending the State of the Union speech. The Democratic representative announced this week she was stepping down from her seat in order to concentrate on her recovery, a year after being shot in the head at a meeting with constituents in Tucson, Arizona.

The other moment was an embarrassing one: the resignation and multiple apologies of the owner and publisher of the "Atlanta Jewish Times", Andrew Adler, following his op-ed column, in which he suggested the Mossad assassinate the U.S. president because of his "unfriendly policies" towards Israel. Two weeks ago, this column mentioned a fictional book, "The President's Ultimatum", in which a rogue Mossad leadership tries to assassinate the American president who wants to impose a peace agreement on Israel. Sometimes, it seems, fiction provides analysts with some really bad ideas.