WASHINGTON (AlArabiya.net, Agencies)
President Barack Obama touched on various Middle East issues in his annual State of the Union speech early Wednesday, including the latest Tunisian political unrest, fighting al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the scheduled withdrawal of the U.S. troops from Iraq, as he headed for a fight with the Republicans over deficit reduction and spending cuts amid looming budget debate. Obama touched on the Tunisian issue saying that “the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator.” “And tonight, let us be clear: the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people,” he said.
The will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator
Nearly a decade since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Obama portrayed al-Qaeda as the top security threat facing the country in his State of the Union address, touting progress in efforts to counter the network.
But in a speech devoted mainly to reviving the economy, Obama only briefly touched on terror threats and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where more than 140,000 troops are deployed.
And we have sent a message from the Afghan border to the Arabian Peninsula to all parts of the globe: we will not relent, we will not waver and we will defeat you
War on terror
“Their leaders and operatives are being removed from the battlefield. Their safe-havens are shrinking,” Obama said of al-Qaeda in Pakistan.
“And we have sent a message from the Afghan border to the Arabian Peninsula to all parts of the globe: we will not relent, we will not waver and we will defeat you.”
Obama’s reference to the Arabian Peninsula underscored the rising threat posed by al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, which has been blamed for recent plots against U.S. targets.
His vow to pile pressure on al-Qaeda comes after a dramatic increase in U.S. unmanned drone strikes in northwest Pakistan near the Afghan border, a key battleground in the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
Obama credited counter-terrorism operatives for foiling al-Qaeda plots but also sought to reassure American Muslims that there would be no backlash against them.
On Afghanistan, Obama said U.S.-led forces were rolling back al-Qaeda’s Taliban allies but warned of difficult days ahead in the nine-year-old war.
This year, our civilians will forge a lasting partnership with the Iraqi people, while we finish the job of bringing our troops out of Iraq. America’s commitment has been kept; the Iraq War is coming to an end
Obama renewed his pledge to start withdrawing some of the nearly 100,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan in July and that NATO-led forces would begin to hand over security duties to Afghan forces in 2011.
“This year, we will work with nearly 50 countries to begin a transition to an Afghan lead (for security),” he said.
“And this July, we will begin to bring our troops home.”
As a presidential candidate, Obama had backed more troops for Afghanistan and criticized the war in Iraq as a dangerous distraction.
This year, we will work with nearly 50 countries to begin a transition to an Afghan lead for security. And this July, we will begin to bring our troops home
Iran and Iran
U.S. combat patrols had ended, violence was down and a new government had been formed, he said.
“This year, our civilians will forge a lasting partnership with the Iraqi people, while we finish the job of bringing our troops out of Iraq. America’s commitment has been kept; the Iraq War is coming to an end,” he said.
Obama, meanwhile, hailed pressure on Iran over its own suspect atomic program.
Obama touched briefly on tensions with Iran in his annual State of the Union address to Congress, which was mostly focused on domestic issues after his Democratic Party lost mid-term elections.
“Because of a diplomatic effort to insist that Iran meet its obligations, the Iranian government now faces tougher sanctions, tighter sanctions than ever before.”
The United States and its European allies have led efforts to tighten sanctions on Iran over its own nuclear program, which Tehran says is for peaceful purposes but which the West suspects is meant for nuclear weapons.
Obama offered some potentially appealing proposals to Republicans — a corporate tax cut, a retooling of the tax code and an end to pet spending projects relied on by many lawmakers.
In a bid to show he has fiscal discipline, he proposed a five-year freeze in some domestic spending, which he said would cut $400 billion from budget deficits over a decade, a move applauded by U.S. debt and stock traders.
To Republican calls for even deeper cuts, Obama said, “Let’s make sure what we’re cutting is really excess weight.”
Obama sought in his speech to reassure Americans weary of stubbornly high 9.4 percent unemployment, fearful of rising debt, dismayed at vicious political rhetoric and worried that their country is falling behind economic powers like China and India.
Obama said the economy is growing again but more needs to be done. He called for a job-creating “Sputnik moment” fed by new spending in research and education like the 1950s space race unleashed when the Soviets launched the Sputnik satellite.
The president heads to Wisconsin on Wednesday to drive home his message of innovation and job creation, visiting a renewable energy technology.
The speech took place in a changed atmosphere on Capitol Hill. Resurgent Republicans enjoy increased power in Congress after November congressional elections and Obama was forced to take account of that by emphasizing areas of agreement.
Obama hopes his State of the Union speech will build his approval ratings, which got a boost from his statesmanlike response to the Tucson killings and his surprise legislative successes after the bruising mid-term elections.
Obama earned warm applause in the 61-minute address when he said it was time to get the U.S. fiscal house in order.
He called for closing tax loopholes and using the savings to lower the corporate tax rate for the first time in 25 years. Republicans want a lower corporate tax rate but may not be willing to close tax loopholes.
Drawing another battle line, Obama made clear he opposed permanently extending tax cuts for wealthiest Americans in the top 2 percent of income after agreeing to a two-year extension in a December tax-cut compromise with Republicans.