Obama’s Speech Was an Opportunity to Engage His Critics — and He Didn’t Take It

Obama’s Speech Was an Opportunity to Engage His Critics — and He Didn’t Take It

President Obama missed a chance to demonstrate that he understood the foreign-policy challenges confronting his administration and that he was prepared to respond in his remaining years in office with a coherent strategy. His much-hyped foreign-policy address at West Point was supposed to do all of that, foreshadowing the expected imminent release of the next edition of his National Security Strategy (NSS). But while the speech did contain some helpful elements, on balance it was a disappointment. Rather than engage his most thoughtful critics, he knocked down some straw men and offered more of the bromides that may have been effective on the campaign trail in 2008, but six years into his tenure as Commander-in-Chief mostly sound tired.

While I only read the speech, and did not hear it live, I was initially as underwhelmed as those who were live-tweeting it. The speech, as I told the New York Times, read as oddly partisan and defensive, jarringly so for an address delivered in the nonpartisan setting of the West Point commencement. Travel commitments prevented me from elaborating on that reaction for the first wave of commentary (though I did give the Times a bit more context than that single quote, editors!). Now having had the chance to read other reactions, some more favorable and others more negative than mine, I think my own initial mixed reaction comes down about right.

First, the good news. When it came to actually proposing courses of action, much of what Obama said was fine, so far as it went. For instance, I do not know of a foreign-policy expert, Republican, Democrat, or otherwise, who would disagree with the statement, "[T]o say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution…. U.S. military action cannot be the only, or even primary, component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail."

The problem with that statement is not its content. The problem is thinking that this substantively engages any of the arguments coming from Obama’s more hawkish critics. Every single hawk I know — and I know many — would agree with the caveats Obama insists upon. No one advocates a military solution to every challenge. Every administration, no matter how hawkish, must pick and choose where and when to use military force. Every administration, including the one preceding Obama’s, decided against military intervention more times than it decided to intervene militarily.

The real debate is in the particularities of each individual case. For instance, would it have made more sense to enforce Obama’s own red line in Syria with military strikes, or did Obama do the right thing in cutting a deal with Assad to ignore the red-line violations in exchange for Syria declaring the bulk of its WMD arsenal and agreeing to eliminate most of that arsenal?

Obama completely sidesteps that argument and pretends the earlier Syrian debate was about whether we should "put American troops into the middle of this increasingly sectarian civil war." The real debate then and now is whether we should "help the Syrian people stand up against a dictator who bombs and starves his own people," as Obama put it. However, as even David Ignatius, one of Obama’s more consistent supporters among foreign-policy commentators, points out, Obama rejected policy proposals from his own team — and from the external hawks Obama derides — to do precisely what he is now belatedly proposing to do.

In Obama’s defense, he is not the only one to pretend that anyone who supports a military response in response to a particular foreign-policy challenge can be dismissed as calling for a military response to every foreign-policy challenge. Nor is he the only one to pretend that the Bush tenure amounted to years of unilateralism — thus denigrating the contributions of allies who paid in blood and treasure to confront Saddam Hussein in Iraq and al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. But myths are myths, whether held by a few or by many, and by now the myths have been exposed so thoroughly by such a range of observers that "those who argue otherwise" — to borrow a phrase from the President — "are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics."

More good news. Obama takes the right track in rebutting other critiques — from the far left, the neo-isolationist right, and from academics mostly outside the policymaking process — who think the world would be a better place if the United States just stepped away from the global leadership role. While I don’t know any foreign-policy expert who would disagree with Obama’s statements about the need to use nonmilitary tools of statecraft where feasible, I do know many who would object to this line: "So the United States is and remains the one indispensable nation. That has been true for the century past, and it will be true for the century to come…. America must always lead on the world stage. If we don’t, no one else will."

My problem with these sentiments is not that Obama has embraced the mantle of global leadership; on this he is absolutely right. My problem is that he is trying to do so while consistently being unwilling to bear the costs of global leadership. You cannot be an effective global leader if you repeatedly make empty threats, abandon allies, and ignore the challenges raised by adversaries. And you cannot be an effective global leader if you fail to learn from your own mistakes.

David Ignatius gets this point exactly right. The biggest news item foreshadowing Obama’s West Point address was his announcement, the day before, that he was authorizing a 10,000-person stay-behind force in Afghanistan for 2015 but was also arbitrarily promising to draw that down to zero, regardless of consequences, regardless of conditions on the ground, by the politically charged date of 2016. Ignatius’s critique is worth quoting at length:

Obama still wants to time-limit America’s commitment to security and stability. This assessment may sound harsh, but why else did he declare, as he did Tuesday, that U.S. forces in Afghanistan would fall to zero at the end of 2016, regardless of the situation there? That’s essentially the same mistake he made in 2009, when he said his "surge" of 30,000 troops in Afghanistan would begin coming home in 18 months, regardless.

Being a leader abroad means being a leader at home. Leading at home requires explaining to the American public why some burdens are worth paying — why we can’t simply do "nation building at home" and ignore threats that originate from failed states abroad.

Such explanations may generate fewer applause lines from a public conditioned to believe that mistakes of omission are less costly than mistakes of comm
ission. But they are needed if the administration is going to advance a coherent strategy. I hope the NSS fills in the gaps left by the West Point speech. It is late, but not too late to get the strategy right.