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What National Security Issues Did Obama Not Bring Up In The State Of The Union?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's focus on a few things that President Obama did not say in his final State of the Union address. In that speech at least the president did not speak in detail about a way forward against ISIS. NPR national security editor Phil Ewing was listening to what was said and not. Phil, good morning.

PHIL EWING, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So what exactly was missing about Iraq and Syria?

EWING: Well, the president didn't lay out any kind of comprehensive vision for a decisive way to end the Syria conflict. He talked about the strategy that's been used - helping local forces, providing them with equipment. And he emphasized a point he's made before it, which is that the approach he is taking right now is the right one because it limits the danger of prolonged Iraq-style ground wars. And if we can, let's listen to what he said about that.

INSKEEP: Sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: That's not leadership. That's a recipe for quagmire, spilling American blood and treasure that ultimately will weaken us. It's the lesson of Vietnam. It's the lesson of Iraq. And we should have learned it by now.

EWING: So the president repeated what's become kind of the key foreign policy philosophy of his presidency, which is, don't do stupid stuff. The problem for a lot of the president's critics, including Republican leaders in Congress, is you can't just say what you are not going to do. You have to lay out a roadmap for what you are going to do. And the president didn't do that in the speech last night.

INSKEEP: And granted they've still got a year to work on it. But it seems quite likely that some kind of huge problem will remain in Syria and Iraq. What is the president's successor likely to have to focus on?

EWING: Well, the long-term strategic outlook for the Middle East is completely unclear right now now. Syria and Iraq, as countries, arguably don't exist anymore as they once did. The ISIS conflict, the Iraq conflict is reshaping both of them. Now there are American special operators in Syria and covert support for forces in Syria fighting Syrian president Bashar Assad. But none of those forces are strong enough to win. Assad also has outside help from Russia and Iran. And no matter how many requests U.S. officials make of Arab and Muslim countries in the Middle East, none of them has shown very much willingness to make a serious commitment of ground forces to win the conflict militarily. So the question is, how do you win decisively, bring it to a close and then form some kind of new governments in Syria, possibly with a new Kurdish organization, to actually, you know, create a long-term prospect for stability there?

INSKEEP: You mentioned that Iraq doesn't exist as it once did. What about Iraq and Afghanistan, these two countries where Americans have spilled so much blood over the years?

EWING: Well, you know, a lot of the president's speech last night was retrospective. He looked back at the promises he made . Did he keep them? He argued yes. And one major plank of his 2008 campaign was to end those wars. The president's administration officials said yesterday they were taking credit for ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But there are still American combat troops there. And occasionally there are still casualties, including as recently as last week in Afghanistan. So those conflicts are not resolved. And there is still no long-term outlook in either case for how those countries can exist as states, as governments without significant amounts of American support for their militaries, for their border control and things like that.

INSKEEP: Phil Ewing, we just got a few seconds here. But let me ask about Iran. The president did not talk about 10 American sailors who had been detained by Iran. It was indicated behind the scenes that maybe they were on their way to fixing this. It turns out they were. And we now have news today that the 10 sailors had been released by Iran. What does it mean that the United States is now in a position where it can talk with Iran about issues like that?

EWING: Well, the White House would argue that this is a good feature of the Iran nuclear negotiations that these channels are open and that when these potential crises spring up, you know, there's a way for Secretary of State John Kerry to pick up the phone and call someone and in this case resolve them. So they would say that's a good thing that he is going to hand to his successor, whoever that may be.

INSKEEP: NPR's Phil Ewing. Thanks very much.

EWING: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.