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Was Obama’s West Point Speech a Pitch For Isolationism?

Was Obama’s West Point Speech a Pitch For Isolationism?

"Americans have learned that it’s harder to end wars than it is to begin them," President Obama observed on Tuesday when announcing the drawdown of American troops in Afghanistan, "yet this is how wars end in the 21st century." The first part of the president’s statement certainly is a truism that has been understood throughout much of the world at least since World War I, if not decades, even centuries earlier. His assertion about the current century, which is only in its 14th year, seems somewhat premature, to say the least. Obama has chosen to end two long American wars; other, as yet unanticipated wars, may end quite differently.

The president’s statement reflects yet another attempt to have the world shaped according to his vision rather than to deal with it as it actually is. His Wednesday speech at West Point’s graduation ceremony took realists to task: "Today, according to self-described realists, conflicts in Syria or Ukraine or the Central African Republic are not ours to solve. Not surprisingly, after costly wars and continuing challenges here at home, that view is shared by many Americans." Realism is not isolationism, however. Recognizing that America cannot "solve" every conflict does not mean that it cannot work with others to do so, only that it should not necessarily be the leader of every attempt to resolve a conflict, much less try to resolve that conflict on its own. Moreover, the choice is not, as the president seems fond of stating, between "boots on the ground" and isolationism. The United States has many vehicles for influencing the behavior of other states, if only it would choose to use them. Herein lies the rub, however. The Obama administration has tended to say much and do little, and, whatever the president may assert about American power, there can be no doubting that the "international community" sees that power waning, and with it, American influence. The retreat from Afghanistan, and it is indeed a retreat, will only further that perception, regardless of any administration assertion to the contrary.

The president could have restricted himself to reducing American forces to about 10,000 troops, without identifying further reductions in 2015, and a complete withdrawal the following year. Had he done so, his argument about America’s ongoing involvement in the search for international stability would have been far more powerful. It would have demonstrated an ongoing commitment not only to continuing the effort to crush al Qaeda and other Islamic extremists — a term the President stubbornly refuses to use — but also to ensure that the Taliban cannot disrupt Afghanistan, even if it is not totally defeated. By signaling a timetable for complete American withdrawal, regardless of developments on the ground, however, the president underscored the very perception he has sought to defuse — that of American withdrawal from the world.

The president is widely applauded for his rhetorical abilities. The challenge he has long faced is that his actions have not matched his rhetoric. His speech at West Point, which stressed America’s commitment to world leadership, even as it reiterated the president’s determination to exit Afghanistan, highlighted this paradox. Thus the president’s promise to "work with Congress to ramp up support for those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists and brutal dictators. And … to continue to coordinate with our friends and allies in Europe and the Arab World to push for a political resolution of this crisis" rings hollow. It echoes identical promises made over the better part of the past three years, none of which has led to significant action, much less concrete results.

Similarly, the president asserted that, "In Ukraine, Russia’s recent actions recall the days when Soviet tanks rolled into Eastern Europe…. Our ability to shape world opinion helped isolate Russia right away." Many Ukrainians would certainly agree with the first sentence; they would surely be puzzled by the second. Russia has not returned the Crimea; violence and chaos continue to shatter daily life in eastern Ukraine. And Russia’s massive gas deal with China, the world’s second largest economy, hardly is an indicator of its isolation.

When the president assured his West Point audience that "the United States will use military force, unilaterally if necessary … when our people are threatened; when our livelihoods are at stake; when the security of our allies is in danger," he qualified his promise by noting that "in these circumstances, we still need to ask tough questions about whether our actions are proportional and effective and just." This will hardly reassure allies who will wonder whether, on the day they need assistance, the administration might say that military action will not be "proportional" to the threat facing them, or that it would not be "effective" anyway, or that our allies’ cause is not seen as "just."

The president rightly has refocused America’s counter-terrorism strategy to address its more diffuse nature, and his request for an additional $5 billion to train allies to fight terror is welcome, though he did not address how that money will be forthcoming given the budgetary vise known as the sequester. But fighting terrorism is only part of a larger strategy, and it is that larger strategy that the President has still to articulate, much less act upon.

Obama has just over two years remaining to his term of office. Much can happen in those two years that might require a military response; the president has said he would not hesitate to use force if he deems it necessary. He still needs to articulate for the American people and the world, in unequivocal terms and without hedges, when he would call upon American troops, and when he would employ them in combat. Until he does so, his speeches, well crafted as they are, will not convince anyone that America is not, in fact, withdrawing from the world.