President Obama has delivered another thoughtful, balanced speech, this time at West Point. His commencement address lent structure to his foreign and national-security policy decisions. It was long overdue, and essential after an exasperated, revealing response last month in Manila to a press question about America’s retrenchment in the world. As reported in the New York Times,
“The president’s frustration flared during the first news conference of his trip, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan. He was asked if, by declaring that the United States would protect disputed islands in the East China Sea under its security treaty with Japan, he risked drawing another ‘red line,’ like the one in Syria over chemical weapons.” Here are some quotes from the President’s response:
The implication of the question I think is, is that each and every time a country violates one of those norms the United States should go to war, or stand prepared to engage militarily, and if it doesn’t then somehow we’re not serious about those norms. Well, that’s not the case.
Do people actually think that somehow us sending some additional arms into Ukraine could potentially deter the Russian Army? Or are we more likely to deter them by applying the sort of international pressure, diplomatic pressure and economic pressure that we’re applying?
That may not always be sexy. That may not always attract a lot of attention, and it doesn’t make for good argument on Sunday morning shows, but it avoids errors. You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run. But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world. Why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force, after we’ve just gone through a decade of war at enormous cost to our troops and to our budget. And what is it exactly that these critics think would have been accomplished?
At West Point, the President’s habitual guard and balanced demeanor were back in place. The White House’s summary of what might become known as the Obama Doctrine reads as follows:
The President spent most of his speech outlining his vision for how the United States, and our military, should lead in the years to come. The four elements of American leadership included:
1. Using military force when our core interests are at stake or our people are threatened
2. Shifting our counter-terrorism strategy by more effectively partnering with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold
3. Continuing to strengthen and enforce international order through evolving our institutions, such as NATO and the United Nations
4. Supporting democracy and human rights around the globe, not only as a matter of idealism, but one of national security.
The most striking passages of the President’s speech, to my mind, were the following:
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… The question we face, the question each of you will face, is not whether America will lead but how we will lead…
I believe that a world of greater freedom and tolerance is not only a moral imperative; it also helps keep us safe… But to 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.
I am haunted by those deaths [of American servicemen and women in Afghanistan]. I am haunted by those wounds. And I would betray my duty to you, and to the country we love, if I sent you into harm’s way simply because I saw a problem somewhere in the world that needed to be fixed, or because I was worried about critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak.
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.
America’s friends and allies are unlikely to find the President’s speech reassuring. Nor will the increasingly wide spectrum of the President’s domestic critics be mollified. The New York Times editorialized that “The address did not match the hype, was largely uninspiring, lacked strategic sweep and is unlikely to quiet his detractors, on the right or the left.” The Washington Post‘s editorial carried the headline “At West Point, President Obama binds America’s hands on foreign affairs.” Its most seasoned columnist on international affairs, David Ignatius, wrote that “the speech also showed that he hasn’t digested some of the crucial lessons of his presidency… Obama still wants to time-limit America’s commitment to security and stability.” The Wall Street Journal editorialized, in typical caustic fashion, that “listening to Mr. Obama trying to assemble a coherent foreign policy agenda from the record of the past five years was like watching Tom Hanks trying to survive in ‘Cast Away’: Whatever’s left from the wreckage will have to do.”
The Obama Doctrine is a response to two long, poorly conceived wars which will show little in return for the expenditure of U.S. blood and treasure. A course correction from the ambitious follies of the George W. Bush administration was obligatory. There’s nothing wrong with hitting singles and doubles, and a home run remains possible in nuclear negotiations with Iran (which critics will score as a terrible error). But President Obama has overcorrected, and his framing of policy objectives in a rare moment of public candor is problematic. Even if ground realities are unremittingly and obstinately limiting – as they are — US foreign and national security policies will not be persuasive at home or abroad if they can be caricatured as those of a singles hitter seeking to avoid big errors in the field.
The Obama presidency is in danger of being hemmed in by its domestic critics and foreign nightmares. Thoughtful speeches do not help to get out of this predicament. Thoughtful speeches do not frame terms of debate or have lasting resonance — even if the President’s choices stand the test of time. What resonates and matters are wise choices and putting adversaries on the defensive.
Timothy Geithner’s book Stress Test, about Team Obama’s unsatisfying, but essentially wise decisions to avoid the collapse of the financial markets, recounts the administration’s inability to frame public debate about its successful economic recovery program. Geithner writes, “Sometimes I thought he wore his frustration too openly. He harbored the overly optimistic belief that since his motives and values were good, since his team was thoughtful and well-intentioned, we deserved to be perceived that way.” He concludes that the inability to communicate effectively and to explain economic plans in real time meant that “we lost the country” even though the administration succeeded is rescuing the financial markets and laying the basis for sustained economic growth. The same critique might be applied to health care, as well as to foreign and national security policy.
One major source of public frustration is how little has been gained by trillion-dollar wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The President’s decisions reflect conclusions that significant, longer-term investments in both countries cannot meaningfully affect outcomes. These conclusions reflect those of the public at large, but don’t shield him from criticism that has widely become visceral in nature.
This President delivers thoughtful speeches and makes mostly sound decisions despite being behind in the count – operating in a period of psychological retrenchment, severe partisan division, the absence of traditional Republican internationalism, and a slavish devotion to deficit reduction.
My sense is that we are displacing way too many frustrations on Barack Obama, who has no one around him or on Capitol Hill to deflect these slings and arrows. I believe the President hasn’t tried to hit enough home runs, but that he is right on Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine, and Iran. Syria is his Achilles heel, the open wound of his presidency that infects all other challenges to U.S. international standing. Caution about new US military engagements is essential after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But when caution extends even to the provision of U.S. military assistance in complex circumstances, the administration invites a more consequential, defining setback – one that no speech, no matter how well-reasoned, can re-frame.