West Point speech: This is not the Obama of 2008

West Point speech: This is not the Obama of 2008

President Obama’s West Point speech on Saturday provides a great example of the structural continuities in American foreign policy. As president and commander-in-chief, Obama now embraces and owns policies that he previously eschewed. For example, after running his campaign denouncing the Iraq War and doubting the surge, he is now essentially declaring Iraq a victory ("this is what success looks like: an Iraq that provides no safe-haven to terrorists; a democratic Iraq that is sovereign, stable, and self-reliant.") After spending much of his first year in office downplaying if not ignoring democracy and human rights promotion, he is now making democracy and human rights promotion one of the four pillars of his national security strategy. After previously rhetorically distancing himself from American exceptionalism, he now says that a "fundamental part of our strategy is America’s support for those universal rights that formed the creed of our founding."

In short, through a combination of the burdens and responsibilities of office, prevailing geopolitical realities, the deep cultural currents of U.S. foreign policy, the bureaucratic systems that reinforce those cultural currents, and the crucible of learning that takes place every day in the toughest job in the world, the President Obama of today acts and sounds considerably different than the one elected in November 2008. (John Hinderaker over at Powerline — a site never hesitant to criticize the Obama administration — makes a similar favorable observation about the speech and its essential continuity with U.S. foreign policy). This is not at all to say that his foreign policy is identical to that of his predecessors — in important ways it does differ, and as I have written elsewhere, often not for the better — but only to point out that truly profound structural changes in American foreign policy are very rare. And generally for good reason.

Some media coverage, such as Peter Baker’s New York Times article, attempts to portray the speech as a "repudiation" or at least distancing from the Bush administration’s grand strategy, and makes much of the fact that he did not emphasize "unilateral American power" or affirm "pre-emption" or "prevention." Baker is one of the very best, and best-sourced, White House correspondents around, so it may be that his article reflects some additional background conversations with Obama administration staff attempting to advance a particular message. But at least when it comes to the text of the speech, here I think Baker’s article overshoots. 

For example, in the midst of discussing the importance of international cooperation, Obama described American leadership in "steering those currents in the direction of liberty and justice" — in other words, a polite way of saying that American power and influence will continue to shape the international order. Or the fact that President Obama did not explicitly affirm the possibility of the preemptive use of force does not mean that his Administration actually rejects it. As historian John Gaddis has shown, since the days of John Quincy Adams (while Secretary of State to James Monroe), American presidents have reserved, and sometimes used, the right to take action against looming threats. Unless President Obama were to explicitly reject the possibility of ever using force in a preemptive or preventive manner to protect the nation (highly unlikely), it will remain an option within American national security doctrine. 

In his speech, President Obama also previewed his soon-to-be-released National Security Strategy, ostensibly built around the four pillars of connecting renewal at home with strength abroad, integrating diplomacy and development, building international cooperation and international institutions, and promoting human rights and democracy. As basic principles, these are sound. Whether they will amount to a coherent strategy (which needs to identify end goals, identify threats or obstacles to those goals, and explain how and why the tenets of the strategy will defeat those threats and overcome those obstacles) remains to be seen, once the NSS document itself is released.