David Rothkopf

The president at West Point: Half the ideas, half the calories

If the graduation speech the president delivered at West Point this weekend was indeed intended — as it was touted to be — as a preview of the President’s national security strategy, you should be able to find that when it released later this week in the diet section of your supermarket in the section ...

Michael Nagle/Getty Images
Michael Nagle/Getty Images

If the graduation speech the president delivered at West Point this weekend was indeed intended — as it was touted to be — as a preview of the President’s national security strategy, you should be able to find that when it released later this week in the diet section of your supermarket in the section for "Foreign Policy Lite." 

Apparently the Obama team still seems to think that defining a policy that is different from George W. Bush’s is enough. Or offering pallid echoes of the policies Bill Clinton articulated almost 20 years ago is enough.  

By all means, let’s have democracy and human rights. Let’s practice diplomacy. Let’s save those who are less fortunate. Let’s have strong international institutions. Hard to argue with any of it, to be sure. However, whomever was the author of the speech seems not to understand the difference between hopes and policies, between what might be nice and what might be possible, between what the public might accept from a candidate and by what the public minimally demands of a president. 

This, by the way, is hardly a call for Bush-ism. Quite the contrary, I think the last element of the enormous damage Bush did with his reckless, irresponsible and in several circumstances illegal policies and actions was setting the bar so low for his successors that they can effectively roll out of bed and clear it. But taking a strong stand against unilaterally violating the sovereign borders of another country on the basis of flimsy, fabricated pretexts or boldly opposing torture or the alienation of a billion people on the planet based only on their religious beliefs is not a foreign policy revolution. It is nothing more than returning to our senses.

And of course, as writers at the Times and the Post have noted in summarizing the speech, in several areas even the impossible-to-argue-with core idea of moving away from the policies of George W. Bush offers less than meets the eye with deadlines for withdrawing from the Middle East, goals for shutting down Guantanamo and big talk about less callous disregard of the constitution when it comes to handling terrorists all shifting off into an ever more uncertain future.

The focus on democracy is noble — but is, as ever, a Potemkin policy that won’t stand up to scrutiny. The place where Obama is investing most American lives and dollars, Afghanistan, is a place in which democracy has been deeply compromised and shows no signs of being transformed under our watch. (The only real boldness in the speech was the president’s looking West Point graduates in the eye and suggesting that asking them to put their lives on the line in Afghanistan was anything other than an exercise in callous futility.) Elsewhere, Iraqi democracy is deeply flawed. Our critical partners in our various national security undertakings include the likes of non-democratic China, faux-democratic Russia and oppressive states in the Middle East. Indeed, one of the core contradictions in the President’s cited priorities is that while we may wish to promote democracy the new partnerships we ought to be fostering will largely be with non-democratic nations.  

The president correctly said we need to grow stronger at home to lead in the world. But the administration has fostered burgeoning deficits and has shown precious little impulse beyond the mandatory convening of commissions to actually do the three things that are essential to fixing our problems at home: creating a new source of revenue (a value-added tax), cutting defense spending and cutting entitlement spending. The first test of whether a president is a real leader and truly wants a strong America is how directly he or she addresses these vital needs. Avoiding them is whistling past the graveyard. The lines about innovation at home are starting to ring pretty hollow as comprehensive climate reform looks ever less likely and promises like doubling exports are not actually supported by little things like the remotest semblance of a trade policy.

The president said we need to build international institutions. But what that means is we need to selectively but clearly give up our dominant role in them, be willing to let foreigners make decisions to which we adhere, give the institutions true enforcement capabilities including the ability to commit troops to ensure, for example, that nuclear wannabes don’t violate international law. We have made precious little material progress in any of these areas and show little inclination to do so in others. Further, we can’t credibly say we’re for a strong international system and then vigorously oppose, as this administration has, the kind of strong new multilateral institutions we need to, for example, regulate international financial markets or do too little to support, as this administration has, ones we desperately need like one to protect our shared global environment.

The speech also called for a renewed emphasis on diplomacy. This is what made headlines. This is news? This is an idea? Oh sure, I’m sure Dick Cheney is grumbling in his cave somewhere before biting the head off a baby goat. But suggesting that focusing on diplomacy is anything like an idea is ridiculous. Foreign policy should use every tool available at our disposal from diplomacy to economic leverage to force. The key is using it effectively… and thus far, to pick one example, the administration’s most prominent use of diplomacy, the Iran case, is moving too slowly and seems almost certain not to work. The key here is that we don’t determine whether diplomacy is the right tool, the other guy has a role in this too and diplomacy without the credible threat of alternatives is just a conversation.

The president has given some great or at least very good speeches in his term of office — in Cairo, in Prague, in Oslo, for example-that hinted at truly transformational policies. This was not one of them. Further, speeches like this are weakened by the fact that the record shows that Obama to date is willing only to rhetorically embrace major change. The follow up to Cairo has been negligible unless you believe weakening the relationship with Israel is the same as strengthening the relationship with the Muslim world in a meaningful way. (It’s not.) The follow up to Prague — a deal with the Russians to eliminate obsolete and unused warheads and a dog and pony show in Washington that produced no meaningful real progress at fixing our clearly broken and unraveling NPT — has been similarly undercut by a willingness to let PR exercises suffice in the face of real meaningful efforts. 

Want an innovative national security strategy? Start by living up to the promise of the president’s earlier speeches rather than his recent penchant for slipping deadlines and dilutive compromises. Then recognize that we are going to have to narrow our ambitions, recognize the implications of our dwindling resources, move away from mid-century paradigms of American hegemony (or early 90s fantasies of same), find true partnerships with partners who are often rivals and often have values different from our own, establish principles wherein the use of force is not squandered on actions which have primarily domestic political goals but is available when needed, cut bureaucracy, cut duplication, recognize changing military paradigms. 

America’s new seeming embrace of the Predator drone as a manifestation and metaphor for the over-the-horizon, unmanned, white-collar-warfare policies we’re comfortable with is shallow and deeply flawed, but at least it recognizes that the nature of warfare is changing in ways our budgets do not. 

Unveiling platitudinous doctrines at a time when the country is worried because of foundering signature initiatives in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran and with regard to the international financial situation seems out of touch. That the situation on our border with Mexico and our relations in this hemisphere are, well, heading south… that the big relationships that we need for the future in places like China and India are evolving slowly and fitfully and without, it seems, any real vision… that hotspots like North Korea or with regard to Israel and its neighbors are deteriorating rapidly… all these things suggest that it is time to enter a new phase of Obama administration foreign policy where the focus is more on results (based on a realistic assessment of what’s possible) than on aspirational rhetoric. Because right now speeches like this weekend’s suggest an ominous course toward what historians may someday ruefully designate "The Era of Good Intentions." 

 Twitter: @djrothkopf

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