In a speech given by President Obama at West Point he promotes American leadership and power but does little to reassure allies. He does much to talk up past successes but ignores current problems like Ukraine and Syria.
Coverage opens with the Foreign Policy Complex blog giving an overview, “President Obama told a crowd of cadets at West Point that the United States remains an ‘indispensable nation’ that will face down terrorism threats around the world and work to bolster key allies while avoiding costly, open-ended wars. But amid Republican criticism that Obama has diminished America’s standing globally, the high-profile address likely handed his opponents new support for their claim that he’s more interested in a domestic agenda than one in which he’d be willing to intervene in a place like Syria, now in the third year of a bloody civil war”.
The post adds that Obama “said terrorism remains ‘the most direct threat to America at home and abroad’ and stressed that the United States won’t refrain from taking direct action against militants if it has actionable intelligence. He also announced a new $5 billion counterterrorism fund conceived to help the United States train allies in the Middle East and North Africa so they could battle their own homegrown extremists with little to no U.S. help. Administration officials pointed to Africa, where the military has ramped up its efforts to help the militaries of countries like Mali, Chad, and Niger. Obama, considered by many of his critics to be a reluctant wartime president, also took pains to lower any expectation that the U.S. military should or would be America’s primary tool for fixing whatever ails the world”.
He fairly notes “Although there has been speculation for weeks that the White House would expand its program to train and arm the Syrian opposition, and perhaps Obama would use Wednesday’s speech to outline it, Obama was decidedly noncommittal. The administration has long stressed that the U.S. military wouldn’t intervene in the conflict and that it was committed to a diplomatic solution to the brutal civil war. Those efforts have collapsed in recent weeks, but Obama didn’t acknowledge that diplomacy was no longer making any progress and offered only broad brushstrokes about what the United States would do to help”.
Interestingly he ends “Obama also committed, once again, to providing more transparency about the military operations he oversees, echoing comments he made more than a year ago at National Defense University in which he argued for more openness in terms of America’s targeted killings of militants abroad. But little of that effort has come to pass.”
Meanwhile David Rothkopf writes in an excellent piece that Obama’s foreign policy is effectively a mess, “Obama is in the midst of his Reassure Our Allies World Tour. First, there was his Asia junket, during which he tried to simultaneously lower expectations for America’s foreign-policy performance and promise allies we were still ready to lead. Then, a surprise visit to Afghanistan. Next week, he’ll be in Europe on the beaches of Normandy, standing beside Vladimir Putin. The big stadium show of the tour took place today, however, right here in the United States at West Point. Returning to the site of his famous ‘Hello, I Must Be Going’Afghanistan speech in 2009 — when he broke new ground in foreign-policy schizophrenia by announcing both our escalation and our withdrawal from that benighted country in the same set of remarks — today, the president sought to present his foreign-policy vision in what the White House billed as a major address”.
Rothkopf follows on the basball anology and makes the valid criticism, “It provided neither reassurance to allies nor anything remotely like a foreign-policy vision. It listed some problems, outlined some principles, but did not lay out any real goals or even a hint of what America’s objectives in the world should be going forward. The only real news in the speech was the announcement of a proposed $5 billion “partners” fund for combating terror. It’s a pretty good idea; we can’t fight terror alone. The problem is that, as we have found from AfPak to Africa, one of the reasons terrorists are drawn to countries is because the local governments are ineffective, tolerant of them, or worse, and actively support the bad guys. From Pakistan to Yemen to Libya, we have found that the people we need to trust weren’t always trustworthy or capable of helping. In fact, the president’s suggestion that somehow Libya — now in chaos and deteriorating fast — was an example worth touting suggests a serious misunderstanding of the situation on the ground, if not a deliberate misrepresentation of the facts”.
Rokopf makes the point that Obama’s policy is only in reaction to the supposedly “steroidal unilateralism” of the Bush administration. He does argue that “calling someone a partner doesn’t make them one — nor does it make them a useful ally. And one of the big lessons of the crises of the Obama years has been that Washington has either not had good partners or has not been able to motivate the good partners it does have to do enough to help achieve long-term goals. Further contributing to the sense that there may be less to the fund idea than meets the eye is the fact that, of course, getting anything passed as proposed by the U.S. Congress is a long shot. All this makes the one biggish initiative announced in the speech both less than it seemed and a metaphor for the defects of the speech as a whole”.
Rothkopf goes on to argue correctly that “If you wanted to sum up the West Point speech you might say that the president wants to find a new low-cost, low-risk path to American leadership — a Walmart foreign policy. He wants to lead. He asserted our exceptionalism. He asserted our indispensability. But the vast majority of the speech (which you can read here) was a reiteration of the reasons he has already offered up for not taking action or not taking much action or not taking effective action in the past. These included the ‘no good choices’ cliché, the false choice between boots on the ground and inaction cliché, the false choice between unilateralist overreach and multilateralist inertness cliché, and so on”.
Of course Rothkopf is right. Obama wants it both ways and as a result will probably get the worst of both worlds. The full consequences of the policy are not fully worked out but the reality of the message Obama is peddling is that America isn’t that interested in doing all the leg work that it takes to defend America’s, and therefore the world’s, interests.
Rothkopf adds “Most of the speech was an explanation of what has become his signature foreign-policy approach: minimalism — doing as little as possible while still creating the illusion of action. Take the hidden and disturbing center of the speech. The president both took credit for striking ‘huge’ blows against core al Qaeda(remember that the estimate of this core at the time of 9/11 was 100 people) and then said, in virtually the same breath, that the greatest threat to the United States remains terrorism — but a new form of terrorism embodied by al Qaeda franchises spreading from Africa across the Middle East and into South Asia. He didn’t directly address that there are now more terrorists controlling more territory than ever before“.
He ends “the speech had three primary flaws. First, it utterly failed to achieve its goal of reversing the narrative that this is a president — and a country — that is unlikely to lead as we have in the past or as the world demands America does today and in the future. Second, it did not offer a real vision of America’s role in the world — one with clear, real goals. President Obama could have spoken of remaking and revitalizing the multilateral system so it is up to the challenges of the new century”.
Cuttingly, but ultimately correctly, he goes on to argue Obama “was, again, a lawyer making a case with words rather than a leader showing the way with actions — tactical not strategic”.
He says that Obama has again failed to come up with real solutions, or even an attempt to solve, substantial problems, “time and again, especially during this president’s second term in office, this administration has proven that beyond empty or limited gestures — a few sanctions on Putin’s Russian cronies, legal action against Chinese PLA officers who will never see the inside of a court, halting efforts in Syria that have only empowered Assad — it lacks the creativity, will, or appetite for moderate risk to undertake effective responses”.
Rothkopf concludes, “we just ended up back in the foreign-policy aisle at Walmart, stocking up on old ideas packed in the thin syrup of tired formulations and offered in bulk. That’s because the real hard work of finding effective truly proportional responses to the challenges we face does not make for big speeches full of rousing applause lines — no matter how many times the president tries to make hay off of the genuine sacrifice of American soldiers. Further, as Obama has shown, the problems we face today cannot simply be addressed by undoing the mistakes of past American presidents. Genuine new thinking is needed. Precious little, unfortunately, was offered in the president’s West Point remarks”.
Lastly Kori Schake writes that Obama has presented a disparity that cannot be ignored, “White House has been advancing for days a major foreign-policy speech by the president, intended as a ‘turning point’ in American foreign policy. According to Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, ‘Our foreign policy is going to look a lot different going forward than it did in the last decade.’ If only it were so. President Barack Obama’s speech Wednesday, May 28, at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point was not a break with the foreign-policy practices of his administration these past five years. It was instead a discouraging reminder of how glaringly wide the gap is between what the administration claims for its success and the reticent choices it actually makes”.
He add “The most important metric for gauging the success of U.S. foreign policy has always been the reaction of foreigners to it. On this front, Obama claimed, ‘America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world.’ But not since Jimmy Carter’s administration have so many foreign governments been anxious about American weakness. May 3’s Economist asked: “What Would America Fight For?” The sad answer: We don’t know. Allies from Japan to Saudi Arabia to Colombia fear the erosion of American commitment and have begun to realign their choices to hedge against the possibility of abandonment. Why? Because there is no commitment that Obama seems actually committed to”.
He goes on to make the excellent point that Obama knocks down straw men and pretends they are important arguments, “The speech did not disappoint those hopeful for the president’s specialty: the ludicrous straw man to be knocked down valiantly. Specifically, Obama informed us that ‘a strategy that involves invading every country that harbours terrorist networks is naive and unsustainable.’ He called for a strategy that instead ‘expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military thin or stir up local resentments,’ but made no mention of such a strategy beyond ’empowering partners.’ Building other states’ capacity to protect themselves and govern their territory is a very good thing, but devilishly difficult to do, as witnessed by the partners the United States empowered in Egypt overthrowing an elected government. Without a much more comprehensive and coordinated effort, the president’s $5 billion “counterterrorism partnerships fund” is likely to replicate the success of the School of the Americas — in training coup leaders”.
He makes the valid point that there were significant elements of the speech missing, “So what else was missing? Well, for starters, the speech had no mention of the Trans-Pacific Partnership nor made any pretense that Obama would ask a Senate controlled by his own political party to grant him fast-track authority to negotiate a trade deal that was supposed to be the crowning achievement of “smart power” and that the Peterson Institute for International Economics assesses would boost global GDP by $1.9 trillion. That’s evidently no longer part of U.S. “foreign policy” going forward. And then there are the grandiose claims unenforced by policy: a paean to the Law of the Sea Convention, which the administration has made no effort to ratify; an announcement that he will “make sure America is out front in putting together a global framework to preserve our planet”; a restatement of the need to close the Guantánamo Bay prison; “new restrictions on how America collects and uses intelligence”; a “willingness to act on behalf of human dignity”; a vague promise to “step up our efforts to support Syria’s neighbors”; and a promise to be “more transparent about both the basis of our counterterrorism actions and the manner in which they are carried out.” Disgracefully, Obama announced he will be affixing responsibility for that transparency with the U.S. military rather than himself doing the explaining”.