When Did Obama Give Up?

Reading between the lines

Six years ago, a visionary president blessed with the rare gift of speech came to Washington to change the world. What happened?

By James Traub

(Top Image): U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama delivers a speech about terrorism on Aug. 1, 2007 at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. Credit: Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images

The first time President Barack Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly, in 2009, he openly acknowledged what virtually everyone in the audience felt: that America under his predecessor, George W. Bush, had often acted “unilaterally, without regard for the interests of others.” This, he said, had proved self-defeating, for “in the year 2009 — more than at any point in human history — the interests of nations and peoples are shared.” The dominant metaphor of his address was the “bargain” that America was prepared to strike with other nations on the great global issues of nuclear nonproliferation, climate change, economic development, and the like.

Obama was interrupted by applause 12 times.

In September 2014, Obama delivered his sixth speech to the United Nations. His hair had gone gray; his long, narrow face had become a few notches more taut. He had a very different message to deliver than he had at the outset of his tenure. The presiding metaphor of this speech was the “crossroads” at which the world stood — between “war and peace” and between “fear and hope.” He had come to lay down a challenge to the world. The United States, he declared, was prepared to play its traditional role as the guardian of global order.

“We will impose a cost on Russia for aggression” in Ukraine, he said. The United States would organize a coalition to mount a military campaign against the jihadi “network of death” known as the Islamic State. Yet it would be up to others, and above all to the Muslim world, to change the conditions that had allowed terrorism to flourish. “If young people live in places where the only option is between the dictates of a state, or the lure of an extremist underground,” he said, “no counterterrorism strategy can succeed.” He did not say, and did not need to say, that this was precisely the choice all too many of them now had to make.

This time, the president was not interrupted even once for applause.

The world that Barack Obama confronts today is a barely recognizable version of the one he faced, or perhaps thought he was facing, in 2009.

The world that Barack Obama confronts today is a barely recognizable version of the one he faced, or perhaps thought he was facing, in 2009. To go back and read the foreign-policy addresses Obama has delivered since the 2008 campaign is to witness a struggle between strong a priori convictions and a tidal wave of adversity. The president who once made an open-handed offer to the world now delivers a harsh challenge. The president who once fixed his gaze, and that of his audience, on the global problems looming on the horizon now speaks of urgent crises requiring instant action. The tribune of hope and change now speaks modestly of hitting singles and doubles. The president has been well and truly mugged by reality.

One could still hear, in the September speech, echoes from that earlier time when Obama’s hair was dark and his hopes were bright. “We reject fatalism or cynicism when it comes to human affairs,” he said, clenching his left hand as he often unconsciously does at moments of conviction; “we choose to work for the world as it should be.” And he turned, figuratively, to speak to “young people across the Muslim world,” as he had in his 2009 speech in Cairo, seeking to conjure a different kind of future by addressing those who would build that future. Obama said the words; but it feels as if Obama only wishes to believe what he once firmly believed.

Conventional wisdom has it that a figure who had seemed a classic “idealist” in foreign-policy terms has come to savor the bitter truths of realism. This is much too reductive. Obama has today — as he did at the outset of his tenure — the ingrained skepticism about the capacity of military force to produce political change that we associate with realism. At the same time, he retains the faith in the instruments of diplomacy, of personal sincerity and sweet reason, that is a hallmark of idealism. It is, however, a much-battered faith. Obama’s trajectory is that of a gifted orator who learned over time that he had put far too much store in speech itself.

Michael Waldman, a speechwriter in the Clinton White House, observes that great foreign-policy speeches almost always turn on “a universalization of American values.” In the speech in which Woodrow Wilson famously declared that “the world must be made safe for democracy” — a speech designed to persuade Americans to go to war in Europe — the 28th president went on to say lines that are far less often quoted. “Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty,” he continued. “We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion.... We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind.” FDR and Truman, Kennedy and Reagan, struck the same chords of transcendent righteousness. A supreme arrogance always lurked an inch beneath that swelling tide. It was left to George W. Bush, with his distinctive mixture of moral certainty, brusque dismissiveness, and bellicosity, to bring those harsh notes to the surface. Barack Obama thus followed the president who gave American universalism a bad name. He had been elected in part in the hope that he would tame that reckless tendency. This might be a solid basis for policy, but not for rhetoric. How was this extremely gifted orator to craft great speeches the theme of which would be the resistance of that impulse?

Obama’s foreign-policy speeches, both during the campaign and in the White House, have been written by Benjamin Rhodes, now the deputy national security advisor for strategic communications. In a recent interview, I asked Rhodes how he had dealt with that problem. The “disconnect” between George Bush’s soaring oratory and policies widely seen as reckless and aggressive, Rhodes said, had “devalued” foreign-policy rhetoric itself. Obama had to look elsewhere for the kind of language Wilson, and all those who followed him, had used to speak both to Americans and to the world. “One of his unique attributes,” Rhodes went on, “is the ability to both speak to the universalization of American values and also to meet international audiences where they are, to show a degree of empathy for their worldviews, to demonstrate that he is a person capable of standing in their shoes and looking at America through their eyes. That’s an asset that we sought to protect.”

That is a very unusual asset for an American president; yet many voters plainly found Obama’s commitment to building bridges between the United States and other nations a desperately needed antidote to Bush’s hectoring moralism, just as they had once found Jimmy Carter’s transparency the cure for Richard Nixon’s poisonous darkness. The change that Obama promised was not simply a change of policy but of tone and posture — even of consciousness. He made this explicit in one of the very first foreign-policy speeches of his first campaign, delivered at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 1, 2007.

The leitmotif of the speech was a strikingly literary one, as seemed appropriate for a politician who had come to public notice through an evocative memoir. “It is time to turn the page,” Obama said. “It is time to write a new chapter in our response to 9/11.” He was challenging not just the Bush administration’s war on terror but the narrative of America that Bush had implicitly composed. That narrative, Obama said, had increased the pool of terrorists, alienated America from its allies, and given democracy a bad name. America needed to tell a new story to the world, and to itself. He illustrated his point with a vivid image. As a senator, he said, he had seen the desperate faces of refugees and flood victims from the door of a helicopter. Here he paused and pursed his lip, either because he was thinking while he spoke or because he wished to convey the impression of active thought. “And it makes you stop and wonder,” he said. “When those faces look up at an American helicopter, do they feel hope, or do they feel hate?”

I happened to be sitting in the audience, and was struck — and impressed — by the weight Obama had given to the way America was seen. He was arguing that, in the post-9/11 era, America’s ability to advance its national interests depended not simply on fashioning strong alliances but on changing the way ordinary people thought about the United States. This was the first foreign-policy speech Ben Rhodes had written; he had channeled Obama’s rare sensitivity to what it means to be on the receiving end of American power — a product of the candidate’s years living abroad — as well as a temperament finely attuned to the thoughts and beliefs of others. Little of this made it into the reporting on the speech, which, to the immense frustration of Obama's advisors, focused almost entirely on a passage in which the candidate had sought to dispose of lingering questions about his willingness to use force by asserting that if he had “actionable intelligence about high-value targets” in Pakistan, and President Pervez Musharraf refused to act, “we will.” The press knew the public mood better than the Obamians did, for the issue has dogged his presidency ever since. To this day, his worldview is assessed on the single question of when and where he is prepared to use force.

As a campaign speaker, though, Obama took America by storm, miraculously recasting the most divisive issues, including race relations, as occasions for national reconciliation. This young and untested figure persuaded first Democrats, and then the American people, that he was the man to turn the page. His inaugural speech was dedicated to the idea of a new beginning, both at home and abroad. Speaking of earlier generations — and leaving the listener to make the contrast with George W. Bush — Obama said, “They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use. Our security emanates from the justness of our cause; the force of our example; the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.” America would put aside the bellicose self-righteousness of the last eight years.

When Obama took office in January 2009, Rhodes became his master wordsmith. Rhodes had some foreign-policy experience as an assistant to former Rep. Lee Hamilton, but nothing quite like this: now he was an important member of an inner circle very much determined to preserve Obama’s prophetic vein from the conventionalizing forces of politics and policy — to protect that asset, as he put it. “Ben would always consult the idealists,” says Dennis Ross, who served in Obama’s State Department and White House. One of those idealists, Michael McFaul, a National Security Council director who later became ambassador to Russia, confirms that. “Ben held the pen, and we kibitzed,” McFaul says. “I kibitzed on every major speech.”

That kibitzing, however, rarely extended beyond the White House. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates had little input. As one former senior State Department official told me, “The White House folks would ask us a question or two, clearly designed to check out something. But we were not given language to consider. This was very tightly controlled by that most controlling White House.” If the speeches were to project not just Obama’s policies but also his voice and his story — if they were to carry to the world the message he had delivered to the American people — then they had to be shaped by the small group that understood him best.

President Barack Obama delivers a speech at Hradčany Square in Prague on April 5, 2009. Credit: AFP/Getty Images

In his first year in office, Obama delivered a remarkable number of foreign-policy speeches, and almost all of them abroad. The imperative that he and his advisors felt was not only to introduce a post-Bush narrative but also a post-post-9/11 understanding of what needed to be done in the world. They believed that the great issues confronting the United States were not traditional state-to-state questions, but new ones that sought to advance global goods and required global cooperation — climate change, energy supply, weak and failing states, nuclear nonproliferation. It was precisely on such issues that one needed to enlist the support of citizens as well as leaders.

Obama had shown that he had a unique capacity to reach Americans at the level of deep belief and to inspire them with hope. Could he not do the same with listeners abroad? Obama, and those closest to him, believed that his voice, his (non-white) face, his story, could help usher the people of the world to a higher plane. As he said to me in 2007, “I think that if you can tell people, 'We have a president in the White House who still has a grandmother living in a hut on Lake Victoria and has a sister who’s half-Indonesian, married to a Chinese-Canadian,' then they’re going to think that he may have a better idea of what’s going on in our lives and in our country. And they’d be right.” Experience as a candidate only reinforced this sense of destiny. Dennis Ross accompanied Obama on a trip to Berlin and other European capitals in the summer of 2008, and says that the rapturous reception Obama received everywhere — the most delirious response to an American leader, in fact, since Wilson landed in Paris in December 1918 — made the candidate feel, “There’s a hunger for this kind of leadership, and I can offer it.”

Obama thus delivered his first major foreign-policy speech in Prague in 2009, on the subject of nuclear nonproliferation. George W. Bush had barely paid lip service to the American obligation under the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to reduce its own nuclear stockpile; other states, in consequence, had offered only grudging cooperation on America’s effort to rein in nuclear rogues like Iran or North Korea, and to craft new treaties that would reduce the threat of nuclear weapons. Nonproliferation, Obama reasoned, was precisely the kind of issue where a new narrative, delivered by a new leader, could carve a path through what had been frozen seas.

The stagecraft of Prague was more rally than speech: On a brilliant spring afternoon, Obama stood on a stage in the midst of a vast crowd that seemed to fill the ancient city center. No one had embraced Obama’s promise more fervently than the young Europeans who thronged the square; when he took the microphone they cheered so wildly, waving little American flags, that the president could barely wipe the huge grin from his face. Obama began, as he often would, by introducing himself to his audience as an individual like themselves. “Few people,” he said, to another round of cheers, “would have imagined that someone like me would one day become president of the United States.” They, too, he told them, had embarked on an improbable journey — reclaiming freedom after decades of repression. “We are here today because enough people ignored the voices who told them that the world could not change,” said Obama. The Cold War had seemed implacable, just as had the limits placed on a black man in America. Obama was so energized that he was, uncharacteristically, stabbing the air with a long index finger.

Only after this lengthy exordium did Obama stake out the extraordinary goal that was his subject: “So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” Of course, the president added, that goal might be a generation or more away. But he had already established the predicate that people and nations could transform their destinies if they chose. The fatalism that supposed that things cannot change as we wish them to was “a deadly adversary.” Obama's overarching subject in Prague was not nonproliferation; it was the idea of a new beginning, of removing self-imposed limits, of daring to believe in belief. “We have to insist, 'Yes, we can,'” Obama said, to thunderous applause. We can, that is, if ordinary people allow hope and enthusiasm to triumph over fatalism and apathy.

Obama laid out the terms of a grand bargain in which the United States would reduce the role of nuclear weapons in its national security strategy, negotiate arms reductions with Russia, and ratify key treaties; meanwhile, states, acting collectively, would strengthen the NPT, crack down on violators, and establish an international fuel bank. Obama returned to the obstacles that lay in the path of his vision: That very day, North Korea had tested a rocket suitable to deliver a nuclear warhead mounted on a long-range missile. But nations and peoples, he said, must choose to define themselves not by their differences but by their collective interests. And the elimination of nuclear weapons from the Earth was a supreme global interest. By his final words — “together we can do it” — Obama’s voice was rising into the preacherly cadences he had used to such splendid effect on the campaign trail.

President Barack Obama delivers his address to the Muslim world from the auditorium in the Cairo University campus during a one-day visit to Egypt on June 4, 2009. Credit: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Two months later, in Cairo, Obama delivered the most ambitious, the most eagerly anticipated, and the most excruciatingly crafted foreign-policy address of his first term, and perhaps of his presidency to date. The June 4, 2009, speech touched on all the neuralgic issues in the region — terrorism, the war in Iraq, Israel-Palestine, Iran — but none of those could be described as its subject. Obama spoke for a full 15 minutes before even turning to those issues. He spoke, at first, of “tension between the United States and Muslims around the world” — not between states but between peoples. He made an extraordinary concession: that "tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often were treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations.” With the possible exception of Jimmy Carter, none of Obama's predecessors had spoken so openly of the past failings of America and the West. Republicans accused Obama of embarking on "an apology tour." In fact, he was enlisting the sympathy of skeptical foreign audiences by demonstrating that he really did understand what it meant to be on the receiving end of American power.

The admission of tension was a stratagem to surmount tension. Obama went on to state that “violent extremists” had exploited these conflicts “in a small but potent minority of Muslims.” The attacks of 9/11 and other terrorist incidents had led some Americans to view Islam as “inevitably hostile” to the West and to human rights, said the president. “This has bred more fear and more mistrust.” Here was the true subject of the Cairo speech. He slowed his pace to impart emphasis to each ensuing word. “So long as our relationship is defined by our differences,” he said, “we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, and who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity. And this cycle of suspicion and discord must end.”

Obama stated his goal in Cairo as explicitly, and as unequivocally, as he had in Prague: “I have come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect.” The president was not offering a new set of policies; he backed Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak as George Bush had, and he could no more deliver peace between Israel and the Palestinians than his predecessors could. What he was offering, as he had in Prague and on the campaign trail, was a new tone of voice — his tone. That, the White House team believed, was no small thing. “Tone is not mere form,” as Antony Blinken, the deputy secretary of state and a former White House speechwriter, puts it. “Tone matters, especially in some communities where you have a sense of grievance born out of a history of humiliation.”

Obama thus took special care to correctly pronounce “assalamu alaikum.” He spoke not of “the Quran” but “the holy Quran.” The audience in Cairo was a great deal more subdued than the one in Prague had been — save when Obama championed Palestinian rights — but here, too, he offered his own story as an emblem of a different America, and thus a proof that the United States was not the “crude stereotype” so widespread in the Muslim world. In effect, he, Barack Hussein Obama, a man of their world and of his own, was proposing to bridge the vast gap he had described.

The most minutely parsed passage of the speech was, of course, Obama’s symmetrical appeals to the Israeli and Palestinian people to reach a two-state solution. In part because, as several officials told me, the speech never made the rounds at the State Department, Obama inadvertently staked out new ground by announcing that the United States did not accept the “legitimacy” of Israeli settlements, rather than regarding them as an obstacle to peace. Many Israelis and pro-Israel advocates winced at Obama’s assumption that it was the Holocaust, rather than millennial ties to the land, that vindicated the Jews’ claims on Israel. But all this was somewhat beside the point, or at least Obama’s point, which was to apply the principle of mutuality to this intractable conflict. Each side had to fully acknowledge the suffering of the other, and the valid claims of the other. Each had to see the conflict through the eyes of the other. The psychological act was the predicate for the diplomatic one. Obama was — there’s no other way of putting it — passionately balanced. When he said “two peoples,” he raised each hand, as if placing scales on a level.

Obama was — there’s no other way of putting it — passionately balanced.

Obama used his travel schedule in 2009 to offer the new American narrative to audiences around the world — not just in Prague and Cairo but also in Accra and Moscow. Vladimir Putin, then prime minister, must have laughed up his sleeve when he heard Obama say, “The pursuit of power is no longer a zero-sum game.” Obama was, in fact, deeply persuaded that the rise of truly global problems meant that cooperation among states had become a matter of national interest rather than a romantic piety. (Of course, Wilson would have said this, too.) The “bargain” at the heart of his 2009 U.N. speech was meant to give substance to this vision.

In December, Obama delivered a speech he had hardly expected to give — the one in which he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. Perhaps for that reason, he was able to give full intellectual due to his chosen subject. Former law professor that he is, Obama had typically structured his speeches according to a distinctive theory of the case, as he had in Cairo, but the rhetoric draped over the argument tended to obscure its outlines. The speech in Oslo, however, had the clarity of form one imagines Obama once brought to the classroom. Philosophers and statesmen, he said, had sought to restrain violence through the doctrine of “just war,” but the “total wars” of the 20th century had rendered these principles obsolete. Institutions like the United Nations had been established to put an end to interstate war, but this “old architecture [was now] buckling under the weight of new threats.” Sounding far less like Wilson than like the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, for whom he has often professed admiration, the president fully accepted the obligation to use violence in defense of principle. Yet, he said, “this truth must coexist with another — that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy.” Rare, indeed, is the leader with the “negative capability,” in John Keats's term, to hold two contradictory ideas in his head at once.

Ben Rhodes notes that Obama was “adamant” about describing war as tragedy in the Nobel address. In subsequent speeches about the use of force, “where it would have been easier to fire people up by celebrating U.S. military action,” Rhodes says, Obama has “resisted glorifying the fact of being at war and he’s also made a point to highlight the tragedy of being at war.” In this, of course, his mood coincides well with the national post-Iraq hangover. Nevertheless, in the years to come, Obama would be called upon again and again to explain to the American people why he had chosen to expand or initiate hostilities. Negative capability is not a useful attribute at such moments. In these speeches, Obama has struggled to find a language as persuasive as Wilson’s — or Bush’s — without resorting to rhetorical formulations he finds repugnant.

The Nobel speech was also, in its own measured way, an expression of Obama’s visionary nature. “We do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected,” he said as he neared the end. Here Obama reached for a trope he was to employ often in the coming years — the simultaneous embrace of the world “as it is” and “as it ought to be.” Leadership, he said in Oslo, begins with hard facts but reaches toward great ideals — toward “that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls.” Obama had managed to concede his unworthiness of the honor in a way that made him seem almost to merit it.

President Barack Obama greets cadets before speaking at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on Dec. 1, 2009. Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

By the end of 2009, Obama had finished introducing himself to the world, and began the task of selling a new foreign policy based on an ethos of cooperation in the name of resolving global problems, engagement with adversaries, a sensitivity to the sometimes harmful consequences of American power, and an open acknowledgment of the limits of that power. The era of the heraldic oration delivered to euphoric crowds had largely come to an end. Most of the major foreign-policy speeches he would give hereafter would be delivered at home, in order to disclose a set of policies to the American people — and to win them over.

The first of these was the address on Afghanistan that Obama delivered at West Point on Dec. 1, 2009. The previous speeches had included long and soaring introductions; this one was sober and highly specific. Obama and his team had spent months agonizing over the proper course in Afghanistan, and now he was announcing that he would send 30,000 additional troops there as part of a limited counterinsurgency surge, and start to bring them home after 18 months — a giving with the one hand and taking with the other bound to disappoint both hawks and doves. He tried to reconcile the decision with his opposition to the war in Iraq and to George Bush’s overreliance on force by saying that “our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan” — as it had not been in Iraq.

It is inherently difficult to persuade people of the merits of ramping up a war that has already ground on inconclusively for over seven years; the cadets themselves listened with solemn respect rather than boisterous enthusiasm. But Obama’s deeper problem was that his target audience — the American people, not admirers abroad — wanted to hear what he would do to revive the collapsed economy. The troop commitment to Afghanistan, he said, must be limited, “because the nation that I’m most interested in building is our own.” Obama thus appeared to accept a zero-sum relationship between his domestic and his global objectives. If so, that was new: As a candidate, Obama had advocated a doubling of foreign aid, arguing that fortifying weak states that incubated sectarian conflict, extremist ideology, and public health hazards was a matter of national interest. But that was all before the economy tanked in 2008. America could no longer afford the foreign-policy instruments Obama had hoped to use — or rather, the American people were no longer prepared to pay for them. Obama thus used the pejorative expression “nation-building” to describe something that he had once favored.

America could no longer afford the foreign-policy instruments Obama had hoped to use — or rather, the American people were no longer prepared to pay for them.

Ben Rhodes says that he told critics who said that Obama never should have placed a definite time limit on the troop commitment in Afghanistan that “absent giving Americans a sense that this was winding down, you wouldn’t have had the support necessary to carry out the policy.” In other words, Obama had to propose a policy he might not have chosen had he felt that he could rally the American people to a very difficult cause. He had already begun to encounter the limits of oratory to reshape political reality: If voters wouldn’t buy it, he couldn’t sell it. “The delicate balancing act,” says Rhodes, “was to purchase more time and resources for the policy by indicating the limits of what we would do. That was a rhetorically very difficult thing to do.”

The speech Obama gave in August 2010 announcing the end of the combat mission in Iraq marked, by contrast, a triumphal moment. The president was making good on one of his most popular campaign promises. Yet his demeanor, and delivery, could not have been more sober. He sat at the Oval Office desk — the same desk, he noted, from which President Bush had announced the beginning of hostilities. He began, his hands clasped before him, by invoking what had already become a ritual phrase — “the need to rebuild our nation here at home.” He spoke of the pain of war and recession. The Iraq mission had drained the national treasury, “strained” relations abroad, and “tested” our “unity at home.” Obama acknowledged the national sense of exhaustion: “In the midst of these storms, the future that we're trying to build for our nation ... may seem beyond our reach.” It was not, he hastened to add, because we were scaling down those ruinous commitments. Obama resorted to the metaphor he had used in the Wilson Center speech, but now in a different context: “It’s time,” he said, “to turn the page.” Turning the page now meant turning back home from abroad.

President Barack Obama arrives to give a press conference after the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C., on April 13, 2010. Credit: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

The first shadows that crept across Obama’s sunny oratory were cast from the homefront; but before long he found himself reckoning with the limits of his policies abroad. He had believed that he could help the Israelis and the Palestinians overcome their stalemate if, as he had said in Cairo, each side was prepared to acknowledge the legitimate concerns and aspirations of the other. This proved to be a vain hope. It had become clear by 2010 that George Mitchell, Obama’s special representative for the region, could not produce a breakthrough in peace negotiations. In January of that year Obama gave an interview to Time magazine in which he conceded that he had “overestimated our ability” to persuade both sides to make painful concessions, and that he “might not have raised expectations as high” had he understood the intractability of the situation.

In the year following the Prague speech, Obama enjoyed important successes on nonproliferation. He won some concessions on NPT compliance at a “nuclear summit” in 2010, reached an arms-reduction deal with Russia and, most importantly, signed up other nations, including Russia and China, on tough sanctions against Iran — sanctions that have held until now, and made possible the current talks on curbing Tehran’s nuclear enrichment program. But the grand bargain Obama had envisioned in Prague foundered. He had hoped to reshape the policy debate by speaking directly to people, who would in turn demand change from policymakers. In this case, Obama had reached the wrong people — the Europeans who already agreed with him, rather than citizens of major developing countries that had shown little interest in enforcing the NPT bargain. Leaders in much of the world remained unmoved. It turned out, says Robert Einhorn, one of Obama’s leading nuclear negotiators, that “nonaligned countries pay lip service to this notion that if the United States and others disarm they will strengthen nonproliferation.” America’s decades of unwillingness to reduce its own nuclear stockpile and change its nuclear doctrine were “a convenient excuse” for inaction on their part. Obama had finally made good on the U.S. side of the bargain, but the partners he needed had not.

Nobody who mattered seemed to share Obama’s convictions.

Nobody who mattered seemed to share Obama’s convictions. Despite the widely touted "reset" with Russia, Vladimir Putin made it clear that he had no interest in the deeper cuts Obama sought. Republicans in Congress barely approved the New START Treaty that reduced the arsenal of deployed nuclear weapons, and outright refused to consider additional treaties. Even the president’s own senior military and national security officials so watered down the changes he promised in nuclear strategy that Obama's published nuclear strategy wound up sounding very little different from Bush's. The Prague speech remains as the bold statement of an aspiration shared by a growing number of statesman and strategic thinkers, but the words achieved less than Obama and his team had hoped.

The Cairo speech also fell short of its own goals, but in a different way. Obama’s rhetoric of a “new beginning” based on “mutual interest and mutual respect” really did resonate in the region; Obama's personal popularity, and that of the United States, rose in the ensuing months. But the hopes for change faded when it became clear that the Obama administration’s policy toward the region was not nearly as different from that of the Bush administration as the drastic change in rhetoric implied. Obama continued to support autocratic allies in the region, there were still American troops in Iraq, and his effort at forging peace between Israel and Palestine went nowhere. Within months, his approval rating had fallen. (He is still far more popular in the Islamic world than George W. Bush, which is not saying much, but far less than Bill Clinton, who was admired for his intense engagement on Israel-Palestine issues.)

The failure of the Cairo speech points to the discrepancy between Obama’s visionary rhetoric and the tools he had at his disposal. On this score, Ben Rhodes is not prepared to admit failure, but does confess to rueful regret. “We came in surfing this wave of expectations,” he says. “We also came in with enormous resource constraints staring us in the face. If we had come in a different era, you could have seen him announcing some incredibly ambitious development initiative. We tried with what we have.” In the Cairo speech Obama offered few new policy prescriptions, and few “deliverables” beyond a “Summit on Entrepreneurship.” But the lack of resources had not led Obama to scale down his expectations, or those that others entertained of him. The hope for large-scale change became attached not to acts of policy, but to the psychic transaction Obama sought, in which a new American tone would produce a new tone elsewhere. This change at the level of thought and feeling would in turn help bring about a change of policy.

But you can’t eat oratory. “You had this small group at the White House that wanted the president to create policy by giving speeches,” says Shawn Brimley, former director for strategic planning at the National Security Council. “Speeches are illustrative and paint a narrative. But what is the connection between those speeches and action?” Two years passed before the NSC had even approved the classified directive outlining the modest initiatives promised in Cairo. Brimley said that he was often baffled by the absence of follow-up inside the administration. In early 2011, he moved to the White House from the Pentagon, with its overwhelming attention to process. Brimley recalls saying to a friend, “I’d love to see the classified Asia strategy.” The colleague, he recalls, “looked at me like I was an idiot. He said, ‘You should go back and read the 2009 speech the president made in Tokyo’” — an address in which Obama had clarified that the United States did not seek to “contain” China.

President Barack Obama speaks about U.S. and NATO involvement in military action against Libya at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., on March 28, 2011. Credit: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

In early 2011, a president who had gotten nothing but lumps of coal in his Christmas stockings finally received a lavish gift from history in the form of the Arab Spring. In the Cairo speech, Obama had spoken in general terms of the Arab world’s yearning to be free of numbing dictatorships, but had not promised to pressure the dictators themselves, as George W. Bush had. Now, however, Obama heralded the millions of young people who had taken to the streets of the Arab world. In early February 2011, trusting his instincts rather than some of his more pragmatic advisors, including Secretary Clinton, Obama called on Egypt’s autocratic ruler, Hosni Mubarak, to step down, and helped to orchestrate his dismissal. In those heady, early days, the Arab Spring looked very much like the Prague Spring of 1989. But it was not to be. In February, Libya’s strongman, Muammar al-Qaddafi, unleashed his troops on armed rebels and unarmed civilians.

Obama was confronted for the first time with the question he had dabbled with in the abstract in his Nobel speech: when to use force to prevent atrocities that do not directly threaten the United States. Libya brought out the ambivalence he had expressed then, for he was acutely aware both of the danger of standing aside while Qaddafi’s forces perpetrated atrocities and of the delusion of supposing that American bombs could cut every Gordian knot. Only after passionate advocacy from some of his closest advisors did Obama authorize airstrikes. On March 28, nine days into the hostilities, he delivered what he called an “update” to the American people — less a speech than an elaborate bulletin.

Obama spoke from the National Defense University, two American flags draped behind him. He calmly described Qaddafi’s campaign of brutality, and the allied response. He issued no Wilsonian call to arms. On the contrary, Obama made much of the limits he had placed on American action: The United States would "play a supporting role” on “the front end of the operation,” acting in concert with others and increasingly handing the burden to them. “It’s true,” Obama said, “that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action.” Here Obama did something characteristic, if probably unconscious: He dropped the volume and register of his voice from the oratorical to a pianissimo urgency, as if to italicize each word: “But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right.”

That sentence was the fulcrum of the speech. On one side lay the conviction, embodied in the doctrine of “the responsibility to protect” — which Obama did not invoke — that nations have an affirmative obligation to intervene abroad to prevent mass atrocities. On the other lay national skepticism, exhaustion, and perhaps apathy. Obama promised that he would not seek regime change in Libya. “To be blunt,” Obama said, as if a reminder were necessary, “we went down that road in Iraq.” He insisted that America had “an important strategic interest” in restraining Qaddafi, though he struggled to explain what it was — a massacre, he said, would have unleashed a flood of refugees, potentially destabilizing Egypt and Tunisia. He gave the impression that he was acting out of a sense of moral conviction but felt that he had to explain his decision in carefully limited national security terms in order to make his case to the American people. “In this particular country — Libya — at this particular moment,” Obama explained, all of the elements had lined up to make an act of intervention both morally right and practically possible. The speech sounded like a Supreme Court opinion carefully crafted to produce no precedent.

The speech sounded like a Supreme Court opinion carefully crafted to produce no precedent.

In his Cairo speech, Obama had extended an offer of mutual respect both to states and to peoples. The Arab Spring, however, had turned the people of the Middle East against their leaders. Obama, who put so much store in the way the United States was seen, above all in the Islamic world, had to clarify whether the country stood with leaders or people. In May 2011, he delivered a speech on the Middle East, though this time he spoke not from the region but from the State Department, for he was addressing the American people as much as the Arab world. “For decades,” he said, “the United States has pursued a set of core interests in the region”: counterterrorism, nonproliferation, peace between Israel and Palestine. “We will continue to do these things, with the firm belief that America’s interests are not hostile to people’s hopes,” he continued. Here was the same reassurance he had offered on Libya: America pursues its interests. “Yet,” he went on, “we must acknowledge that a strategy based solely upon the narrow pursuit of these interests will not fill an empty stomach or allow someone to speak their mind.”

With this “yet,” Obama pivoted to a favorite phrase: “After decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be.” The world had changed in such a way that American interests were now, as perhaps they had not been before, aligned with the aspirations of ordinary people. American support for “political and economic reform” in the region, he insisted, “is not a secondary interest” but “a top priority.” Obama then made good on that vow by grasping a nettle that he had avoided until then. He made it clear that America would not only lend its support to emerging democracies but also chastise its autocratic allies. He bluntly asserted that “mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens,” and added that the government “must” begin talks with the opposition. But Obama was careful not to say what he would do if it did not. This was probably for the best, for just five days before, America’s other autocratic allies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, had sent in troops to help Bahrain crush domestic unrest. Events had forced Obama to make the stark choice between “interests” and “values” that he had insisted was unnecessary. After sharp internal debate, the administration went with national interests, issuing a mild expression of concern for the political rights of the Bahraini people.

The State Department speech included more deliverables than Cairo had, including emergency funds plus IMF and World Bank loans to support the shaky democratic transitions in Egypt and Tunisia, as well as a trade partnership for the region. This was not trivial for a nation facing a fiscal and budget crisis. But the speech disappointed those inside and outside the White House who had been calling for a spirited response to the Arab uprising. The Cairo speech had not forced Obama to choose between the people and their regimes, and it had not required him to come up with money to give substance to his promises. Now, it turned out, he couldn’t do the first consistently and couldn’t do the second adequately.

Obama hadn’t wanted to get sucked into the vortex of the Middle East. In much of the world — as several White House aides helpfully pointed out to me — the hopeful future Obama had projected in his 2009 speeches really was arriving. The administration was eager to execute its “pivot to Asia,” and almost as eager to demonstrate to both Americans and to the people of Asia that it was doing so. In November 2011, Obama made a long-delayed trip to the region, and gave major speeches in Jakarta — where he was hailed as a returning hero — and in Canberra, where he addressed the Australian Parliament. “The tide of war is receding,” Obama declared, “and America is looking ahead to the future that we must build.” In the Middle East, where tides of war rose and fell, any act of building, and certainly nation-building, was a risky proposition. Not so in Asia. “Here, we see the future,” said Obama. He then called attention to his topic sentence: “As president, I have, therefore, made a deliberate and strategic decision — as a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future, by upholding core principles and in close partnership with our allies and friends.”

The Asia speeches were intended to signal a shift not only of resources but of attention. Alas, it was not to be; just as the United States extricated itself from one set of conflicts in the Islamic world, others, hatched out of the Arab Spring, sucked American energies back in. The intervention in Libya had succeeded, and then Libya itself had failed. The murder of U.S. Amb. Chris Stevens in Benghazi, in September 2012, crystallized, at least for Americans, the fear that the whole region was descending into sectarian madness. This was Obama’s chief theme as he addressed the U.N. General Assembly two weeks later. The violence in Benghazi, he lectured his fellow world leaders, constituted "an assault on the very ideals upon which the United Nations was founded." All of them, he continued, had to "declare that this violence and intolerance has no place among our United Nations." He was still offering America’s deep engagement with the world, but, he admonished, “our citizens must be secure and our efforts must be welcomed.” Candidate Obama had convinced the American people that if they changed their tone and posture abroad, they would win the trust of the child looking up at the helicopter. Obama had made those changes — and found that people were shooting at the helicopter. Now he was turning to the world’s leaders to say that it was they who must change their tone and posture. The president seemed to be channeling his own people’s impatience and ire. Perhaps he was: The election was only six weeks away.

President Barack Obama walks to the podium before addressing the nation in a live televised speech from the East Room of the White House on Sept. 10, 2013 in Washington, D.C. Credit: Evan Vucci-Pool/Getty Images

Obama won that election, of course. His second inaugural speech was notably more restrained than the first. The brief passage on foreign policy focused on climate change and energy security, the new issues of the day. Of the political convulsion of the Arab world he said nothing at all. And no wonder: The Arab world had continued spiraling down into violence and repression. By the late summer of 2013, only Tunisia was moving toward more pluralism and political accountability. Egypt had reverted to military control; Syria had become a killing field. Obama resisted calls from his own top officials to arm nationalist rebels there. He had, however, publicly stated, with little forethought, that he would act if Damascus used chemical weapons. And then on the morning of Aug. 21 it did so, murdering more than 1,000 civilians in the suburbs of Damascus. Now Obama had to intervene to enforce a red line that, until that moment, had seemed like a peripheral element of the conflict. On Aug. 31 and again on Sept. 10, Obama sought to explain his policy in Syria as he had on Libya; those speeches rank among the most painful and least convincing of his time in office.

In the first speech, Obama stood on the White House lawn accompanied by Vice President Joe Biden, an unusual casting decision designed to show an administration unified in horror and united in a decision to engage in hostilities. The president’s language was implacable: “In a world of many dangers, this menace must be confronted.” Actually, there was a quite placable subtext: Obama was prepared to use force against this particular menace at this particular moment, but not otherwise. He offered all the mollifying limitations that by now had become second nature: no American boots on the ground, no open-ended commitment, etc.

Then came an abrupt swerve: “I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress.” Obama did not believe he needed authorization, and had not intended to seek it, but polls showed that the public would only support military measures if Congress authorized them. His chief of staff, Denis McDonough, had persuaded him that he needed to ask for a vote. Of course, Obama knew that both parties were squeamish about voting to bomb Syria, and he believed that many Republicans were perfectly prepared to undermine his authority as commander in chief. He issued a remarkable admonition: “I ask you, members of Congress, to consider that some things are more important than partisan differences or the politics of the moment.”

How can a president rewrite the national narrative if he can’t speak for the country?

The president made his own bad luck in Syria by declining to act when he might have been able to make a difference, and then by issuing an ultimatum that he hadn’t expected to be violated. But it was also true that he faced an opposition that saw him, and treated him, as a fundamentally illegitimate figure. It wasn't only on matters of domestic policy where Obama faced entrenched political opposition: Congressional Republicans had almost unanimously opposed his effort to rewrite the nuclear bargain, his bid for Middle East peace, his attempt to reach out to Iran, and indeed his entire rhetorical approach of offering "mutual interest and mutual respect." This had the effect of diminishing the president, just as the surly public mood did. “The absence of any traditional sense of rally round the flag has had a more corrosive effect when it comes to international relations than I think most people realize,” says Rhodes. “You don’t have the same sense that you had in the Cold War of a president speaking for the entire country. You have Barack Obama speaking for the office of the presidency.” How can a president rewrite the national narrative if he can’t speak for the country? People across the world took note of the fact that Obama could not even succeed in closing Guantánamo, as he had promised to do in his very first week in office. Obama could not, in effect, deliver America.

The Aug. 31 speech failed because Obama could no longer rally an apathetic public or arm-wrestle a hostile Congress. It became overwhelmingly clear that he would lose the proposed vote to authorize the use of force. At the same time, Russia had offered to pressure Bashar al-Assad to eliminate his stock of chemical weapons should Obama agree to withhold military action. On Sept. 10, Obama strode from the Oval Office to a lectern placed in the East Room of the White House. For all the show of resolution, his first words were not a call to action but an explanation of past inaction: “I have resisted calls for military action” in Syria, he said, “because we cannot resolve someone else’s civil war through force, particularly after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Again he was saying: here but not there, then but not now. In this speech, unlike the previous one, he provided a strongly reasoned and morally impassioned account of why the chemical weapons attack compelled a military response. But he could not, or would not, plumb the rhetorical depths in order to issue a call for action. The chestiest moment of the speech came when he vowed that, while the campaign he planned would not be “open-ended” or “prolonged,” it would not consist of “pinpricks.” The United States, Obama declared, “doesn't do pinpricks.”

Then came another swerve: The president laid out the Russian offer. With that in mind, he said, he had asked leaders of Congress to postpone the planned vote. Here was a deus ex machina for a Congress that did not want to vote on the use of force and a president who did not want to act on his own. In this one moment was concentrated all the accumulated adversity of the previous four and a half years. A president who had begun as a tribune of change, of “Yes, we can” abroad as well as at home, was now becalmed before a listless and surly public, an openly hostile and increasingly isolationist Congress, and a disintegrating order in the Middle East. He had been forced to accept a lifeline thrown to him by a leader who would just as soon have handed him a noose.

President Barack Obama enters the stadium at West Point before his commencement address to the graduating class at the U.S. Military Academy on May 28, 2014. Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Obama has given very few memorable foreign-policy speeches in his second term. He has found himself increasingly defending decisions to use force or coercion, a subject hardly suited to his rhetorical gifts. Still, over the last year, he has been fortunate in his choice of adversary. His decision to bomb the extremists of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria was welcomed in Congress and the public, as, in general, has been his call for tough sanctions to punish Russia for its aggression in Ukraine. At the same time, Obama has continued to try to place the use of force within the larger context of his foreign-policy goals.

In May of 2014 Obama returned to West Point, where he had delivered his 2009 speech on Afghanistan, to speak about the meaning of American leadership. His gestural vocabulary had the same measured economy as ever — the pursed lip of reflection, the lightly clenched fist of conviction, the hands crossed over one another in repose. He was, and remains, undemonstrative.

Obama sought to locate his own conception of American leadership between ideologies too rigid to accommodate a messy world. “Self-described realists,” he said, insist that conflicts abroad “are not ours to solve.” That view, he added, “is shared by many Americans.” On the other hand, “interventionists from the left and right” argue that “America’s failure to act in the face of Syrian brutality or Russian provocations not only violates our conscience, but invites escalating aggression in the future.” Obama often defined such antinomies in cartoonish terms, but this was the kind of fair-minded summation one would expect of a scholar rather than a politician. It was a reminder of the intellectual dispassion so fundamental to his nature.

Obama then mapped out the space he wished to occupy, one in which the United States has “an abiding self-interest” in “a world of greater freedom and tolerance,” yet had too often resorted to force in order to achieve those goods. “Since World War II,” he said, “some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint, but from our willingness to rush into military adventures.” Obama’s skepticism about the effectiveness of force had helped carry him to the White House; he had been probing the issue in public since the Nobel speech. When America’s “core interests” were threatened, he explained, it must be prepared to respond with military force, “unilaterally if necessary.” But in the face of “issues of global concern,” such as mass atrocities or crises that “push the world in a more dangerous direction,” the United States should “mobilize allies and partners to take collective action,” and deploy the tools of diplomacy and development, as well as force. Presumably, then, Obama would not have intervened in Rwanda had he been president in 1994, unless he had forged the kind of alliance he had in Libya. Here, then, was a blunt statement of the hierarchy of interests and values, at least regarding the use of force.

As Obama reached the conclusion of his speech, he used the balanced formulation that had become almost his watchword, observing that the mantle of global leadership required America to see the world as it is but also as it should be, “where hopes and not just fears govern.” He spoke of “international norms” and “multilateral channels” and U.N. peacekeeping missions and “a global framework to preserve our planet.” One could see the man who declared on a New Hampshire lawn in the summer of 2007, “I want to go before the United Nations and say, ‘America’s back!’” Obama’s worldview is not parsimonious; he is still, for all his setbacks, a believer.

Obama’s words no longer carry a charge. It is hard to remember the sense of excitement he once generated.

But does it matter? The cadets and the parents gathered for the graduation ceremony sat silently through several of the president’s applause lines. CNN described the reception as “icy.” What had changed since 2009 was not so much the substance of Obama’s views as his capacity to inspire the audience before him. And not only that; Obama himself seemed to have lost faith in the efficacy of oratory. A speech is a transaction between orator and listener; some crucial energy had dissipated from both sides of that transaction. Obama’s words no longer carry a charge. It is hard to recapture, even to remember, the sense of excitement he once generated.

What are we to think today of this man whose voice, whose face, whose story inspired millions of Americans and people all over the world only a few years ago? I was one of those people. I can’t quite fault the excessive faith that Obama’s inner circle placed in his empathic powers because I felt it too. I still admire Obama — even the Obama of singles and doubles. But I feel deeply the sense of collective deflation, and not only the one surrounding the president. The splendid hopes of people in Tahrir Square and Bahrain's Pearl Roundabout and the other great spaces of the Arab world have evaporated as if they never were. Words have proved so much weaker, and facts so much more intractable, than we once thought. Perhaps Obama and his circle should have known that; perhaps he, and they, should have been more circumspect. But Americans made Obama president precisely because he lifted their sights to something finer. In the end, his failure to move the world as he hoped to is our tragedy, far more than it is his.

James Traub is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy. Follow him on Twitter: @JamesTraub1.

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