An expert's point of view on a current event.

Clean Up on Aisle One

Not new, not improved, Obama rehashes his Walmart foreign policy.

Jim Watson, AFP, Getty Images
Jim Watson, AFP, Getty Images

Barack 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.

To borrow from the baseball metaphor the president offered up on his Asia trip when he spoke of a foreign policy made up of singles and doubles rather than home runs, this speech was a dribbler into the glove of the first baseman. 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.

You can’t fault a president who was elected to undo the mistakes of steroidal unilateralism by seeking to embrace partnership. Indeed, leveraging U.S. power with that of engaged, committed allies has been an essential element of most major U.S. international triumphs of the past century. But 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.

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. These were couched, as usual, in earnest language that shows he knows where the problems in the world are along with his traditional touting of foreign-policy "successes" that don’t hold up to much scrutiny — from Iraq to Afghanistan, Libya to Ukraine.

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, that the State Department’s most recent report on terror casualties shows a sharp rise, that his own intelligence chiefs warn that the threat of terror is greater than ever, or that in fact, by any reasonable measure, we are actually losing the war on terror. He then offered up this possible partnership approach to addressing the problem, though efforts like it have not worked very well to date against this new threat; though $5 billion is not a lot of money, relatively speaking; though the partners we have in this enterprise are dubious; and though the Congress may or may not support it. It looks like action. But in fact it both minimizes and is very likely to fail to address the problem.

In the end, 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. He could have described a new commitment to remaking key transatlantic alliances so that they are up to meeting the new threats we face. He could have sketched out a vision for America’s role in the Pacific. He could have spoken of how we would go about developing new doctrines to deal with a new era of cyber- and high-tech warfare. He could have launched a program to help restock our government with people with expertise in the regions and technologies that we will need to lead in this era. He could have built on past sound ideas like offering anything concrete about what nation building at home means for our role in the world. But instead he was, again, a lawyer making a case with words rather than a leader showing the way with actions — tactical not strategic.

Third, he did not address in a meaningful way perhaps the greatest weak spot in his foreign policy. He has no middle game. The United States is well-prepared to win a global conflict of the type we all hope must never be fought. He is very comfortable with minimalist, orthoscopic, pinprick responses to problems. But most of the challenges we face, from Russia in the Crimea to Assad in Syria to China in the East and South China Seas, are mid
dle-range problems, where neither a big war nor a big speech will get the job done. Yet 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. Part of the blame must fall on our allies, who are also often feckless and who also must do more to pull their weight. But the administration has been an ineffective leader, coming up with less-than-meets-the-eye and certainly less-than-meets-the-needs of the crisis time and again. This is where he and his team must focus. This is where they have come up short.

Unfortunately, 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.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf