Highlights from Obama's SOTU address

As John Harwood notes at the New York Times, tonight's address by President Obama was as much a "state of the campaign" as it was a State of the Union. But while the president did focus on hot-button issues such as jobs and the economy (he called keeping the American dream alive the "defining issue of our time"), he also spent considerable time on foreign policy. Here are some of the highlights:


Obama has started all three of his State of the Union addresses with a call for unity. But he's done so in different ways. In 2010, Obama meditated on America's time-tested ability to transcend hardship. In 2011, he reflected on how the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords had reminded Americans of the ties that bind them together. 

This year, Obama began with foreign policy, noting how the American military has withdrawn from Iraq, killed Osama bin Laden, taken out some of al Qaeda's top lieutenants, and halted the Taliban's momentum in Afghanistan. He urged Americans to collaborate on education, energy, security, and the economy just as U.S. soldiers do every day:

These achievements are a testament to the courage, selflessness, and teamwork of America's Armed Forces. At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations. They're not consumed with personal ambition. They don't obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together.

He circled back to this theme at the end of the speech, conveniently working in once again that, yes, bin Laden is dead:

One of my proudest possessions is the flag that the SEAL Team took with them on the mission to get bin Laden. On it are each of their names. Some may be Democrats.  Some may be Republicans. But that doesn't matter.... So it is with America.

Some took issue with the analogy. As the National Review's Rich Lowry tweeted, "A democratic society can never be like a well-trained SEAL team."


In each one of his State of the Union addresses, Obama has linked the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with the fight against al Qaeda, arguing that withdrawing from Iraq has enabled America to dismantle terrorist networks and keep the Taliban from turning Afghanistan into a safe haven for those who want to attack the United States. In 2010, Obama explained that "as we take the fight to al Qaeda, we are resposibly leaving Iraq to its people." In 2011, he turned to al Qaeda immediately after proclaiming that the Iraq war was coming to an end. This year was no different:

Ending the Iraq war has allowed us to strike decisive blows against our enemies. From Pakistan to Yemen, the al Qaeda operatives who remain are scrambling, knowing that they can't escape the reach of the United States of America. 

From this position of strength, we've begun to wind down the war in Afghanistan.... This transition to Afghan lead will continue, and we will build an enduring partnership with Afghanistan, so that it is never again a source of attacks against America.  


Obama devoted one-and-a-half paragraphs to the uprisings in the Middle East but didn't explicitly mention America's role in the military intervention in Libya that toppled Muammar al-Qaddafi -- the centerpiece of what some have described as the Obama administration's doctrine of "leading from behind."

The takeaway line may have been Obama's singling out of Syria:

In Syria, I have no doubt that the Assad regime will soon discover that the forces of change can't be reversed, and that human dignity can't be denied.

But Obama did not say whether his administration would take any more concrete steps to help Syrian President Bashar al-Assad see the light.


During an election year in which the Republican candidates have been taking a hard line on Iran's nuclear weapons program, Obama talked tough on Iran, using words that seemed a far cry from his declaration in Cairo in 2009 that he was willing to pursue talks with Iran "without preconditions on the basis of mutual respect." Here's what he said tonight:

The regime is more isolated than ever before; its leaders are faced with crippling sanctions, and as long as they shirk their responsibilities, this pressure will not relent. Let there be no doubt: America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal. 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 had harsh words -- wrapped in a new presidential initiative, no less -- for China, which has been a favorite target for this year's crop of Republican candidates as well: 

I will go anywhere in the world to open new markets for American products. And I will not stand by when our competitors don't play by the rules. We've brought trade cases against China at nearly twice the rate as the last administration -- and it's made a difference. Over a thousand Americans are working today because we stopped a surge in Chinese tires. But we need to do more. It's not right when another country lets our movies, music, and software be pirated. It's not fair when foreign manufacturers have a leg up on ours only because they're heavily subsidized.

Tonight, I'm announcing the creation of a Trade Enforcement Unit that will be charged with investigating unfair trade practices in countries like China. There will be more inspections to prevent counterfeit or unsafe goods from crossing our borders.


While Obama made one of his few ad libs of the night when it came to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- noting that "our iron-clad -- and I mean iron-clad -- commitment to Israel's security has meant the closest military cooperation between our two countries in history," he didn't say anything more about the Middle East peace process. But that actually shouldn't be surprising. Obama didn't address the conflict at all in his previous two State of the Union addresses. President George W. Bush, by contrast, discussed Israeli-Palestinian peace in 5 of his 7 State of the Union addresses.  


The Obama administration's much-vaunted strategic pivot to Asia merited only ten words: "We've made it clear that America is a Pacific power." What does that say about America's true geopolitical priorities? Pundits, have at it.


Republican rivals have tried to paint Obama as a kind of American exceptionalism denier. As Mitt Romney put it, "Our president thinks America's in decline. It is if he's president. It's not if I'm president. This is going to be an American century."

Obama shot back on Tuesday evening, declaring that, "America remains the one indispensable nation in world affairs -- and as long as I'm president, I intend to keep it that way." The line recalled President Bill Clinton's exhortation in his 1997 State of the Union for Americans to "do what it takes to remain the indispensible nation, to keep America strong, secure, and prosperous for another 50 years."

In his State of the Union address, Obama proclaimed that "America is back" and that "anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned doesn't know what they're talking about."

Lastly, we'd be remiss if we didn't mention the most cringe-inducing moment of the night: Obama's quip that, in the case of a bad regulation classifying milk as an oil, "I guess it was worth crying over spilled milk." The lame joke conjured up memories of Obama complaining in his 2011 State of the Union address that the Interior Department oversees salmon when they're in fresh water while the Commerce Department handles them when they're in saltwater. "I hear it gets even more complicated once they're smoked," he added.

Yes, the byzantine workings of government may be bad for the American people. But boy do they soften up a crowd! 

Mark Wilson/Getty Images


Why do police douse protesters with colored water?

As Egypt prepares to mark the first anniversary of the Egyptian revolution on Wednesday, with activists mapping out protest routes and the ruling military council partially lifting the country's emergency laws and releasing prisoners in apparent goodwill gestures, Al-Masry Al-Youm is reporting something rather odd. Anonymous security sources tell the Egyptian newspaper that security forces are planning to use batons, loudspeakers, and "colored chemicals that will stain one's skin for six months" against "those perceived to be violating the law."

It's the colored chemicals in particular that's gotten picked up by Twitter users in Egypt, generating a mixture of outrage ("colored chemicals you idiots?!!!!!), humor ("so it's paint ball fight now?"), advice ("Vaseline reduces the effects of colored water") and skepticism ("if it's real we wouldn't be finding out about it a week beforehand"). Several people have tweeted this footage of Ugandan police using water cannons to spray opposition activists with pink dye in Kampala in May, after rising food and fuel prices sparked "walk to work" protests.

According to Maki Haberfeld, chair of the Department of Law, Police Science, and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, injecting semi-permanent, bright-colored dyes into water cannons is a relatively cheap and nonviolent way to identify and detain rioters after crowds disperse and deter demonstrators who worry about staining their clothing or skin. "Water is considered to be benign but at the same time people don't want to be sprayed by water and especially colored water," she explains. "So it's not a bad alternative." But Haberfeld adds that modern police departments aren't likely to use such a low-tech tactic.

Nevertheless, the approach is still employed frequently. The most famous use of colored-water cannons took place in South Africa in 1989, when police soaked anti-apartheid activists with purple water and one protester turned a water cannon back at police and government buildings, giving birth to the anti-apartheid slogan "the purple shall govern."

But there are more recent examples (including blue water cropping up in a confrontation between squatters and South African police last May). Photos and videos online capture colored-water cannons dispersing protesters everywhere from Argentina to Malaysia to Hungary, and Israeli police have used colored water on protesting Palestinians (see above) and Jewish settlers in the past several years (the water aimed at settlers being evacuated from Gaza also contained turpentine). Some British lawmakers suggested tagging looters with dye during the London riots last year. And, as the pictures below of Kashmiri government employees protesting in Srinagar in 2008 and 2011 attest, Indian police appear to be particularly fond of purple water:

When supporters of ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya took to the streets of Tegucigalpa in 2009, meanwhile, they were hosed with red liquid:

Sid Heal, a retired commander with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department and riot-control consultant, says red dye isn't the best because it can be mistaken for blood. And he adds that dyes can also be mixed with pepper spray or delivered through sophisticated projectiles. "If you see someone lighting a building on fire, you can hit them with the dye and record the incident," he explains. "And then if you find the person, you can connect them back to the projectile and prosecute them." This past summer, David Hambling noted at Wired that some dye tactics are actually quite high-tech:

A more subtle approach is to use invisible dye that only shows up under UV light, a technique used for marking suspected insurgents in Afghanistan. UK company Smartwater goes even further, with invisibly coded sprays which can record exactly where a suspect was sprayed. These provide solid forensic evidence for a prosecution.

But dyes have their drawbacks too. When Kashmiri protesters stared down purple water in 2008, Slate pointed out that innocent bystanders had been hit by the spray and some locals were complaining that the dye was toxic. "The technology by itself doesn't provide a solution," Heal argues. "It has to be incorporated into a plan to identify suspects."

Additional photo credits: Tauseef Mustafa/AFP/Getty Images; Rouf Bhat/AFP/Getty Images; Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images

Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images