Shadow Government

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 commission. 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.

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

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.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images