Returning to West Point, 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 — the president sought this week 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.
The president wants to find a new low-cost, low-risk path to American leadership — a Wal-Mart foreign policy. He wants to lead. He asserted our exceptionalism. He asserted our indispensability. But most of the speech 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.
David Rothkopf, Foreign Policy
Obama’s speech could be called a tribute to common sense, except that the sense it made is so uncommon.
The president’s main point was to emphasize that not every problem has a military solution. He drew one other distinction. On the one hand, there are “core interests” — direct threats to America and its allies — that we would absolutely defend with military force, “unilaterally if necessary.” On the other hand, there are crises that may “stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction” but that don’t threaten our core interests. In those cases, “the threshold for military action must be higher.”
This should seem obvious. The problem is, it isn’t to the endless stream of politicians, pundits and Sunday talk-show mavens who routinely denounce Obama as the weakest president in American history without knowing anything about history or — most of them — unveiling the slightest hint of what they would do in his place.
It’s a fair bet that the most propelling motive behind this speech was sheer exasperation. But Obama listed several things he did do, and they undoubtedly had an effect. Sanctions isolated Russia; reinforcements to Eastern European NATO members shored up their confidence. And as a result of all this, the Ukrainians elected a new president who seems capable of bridging the West and the East, and the prospects of a violent East-West confrontation have receded. Obama said that all this happened “because of American leadership ... without us firing a shot” — a boast that’s hard to dispute.
If Obama’s critics had their way, there would still be American troops in Iraq, there wouldn’t be a drawdown in Afghanistan, and shipments of fresh new recruits would be fighting in Libya, Syria, Ukraine and who knows where else. Does this mean, as his critics charge, that Obama has an aversion to war? I suppose. But what exactly is wrong with that?
Fred Kaplan, Slate
"U.S. military action cannot be the only — or even primary — component of our leadership in every instance,” Obama said. In laying out his vision for the U.S. role in the world, the president aimed for the well-trod high ground between isolationists and interventionists. His last effort to get there, a peevish exposition at a news conference in the Philippines, wasn’t very convincing. His presentation was more polished Wednesday, but it’s unlikely to tamp down criticism of his conduct of foreign policy as weak, indecisive and unconvincing.
Obama could have done more to advance his case if he had just built it around his announcement Tuesday about drawing down forces in Afghanistan. West Point, after all, was where Obama announced, in December 2009, his decision to send 30,000 additional troops there. That deployment and its subsequent successful withdrawal have given the United States greater flexibility to advance its global interests. That’s a good story to tell, and Obama should have stuck with it.
Obama marshaled a virtual corps of straw men, dismissing those who “say that every problem has a military solution,” who “think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak,” who favor putting “American troops into the middle of Syria’s increasingly sectarian civil war,” who propose “invading every country that harbors terrorist networks” and who think that “working through international institutions … or respecting international law is a sign of weakness.”
Few critics hold such views. Instead, they are asking why an arbitrary date should be set for withdrawing all forces from Afghanistan, especially given the baleful results of the “zero option” in Iraq. They are suggesting that military steps short of the deployment of U.S. ground troops could stop the murderous air and chemical attacks by the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad. They are arguing that the United States should not be constrained by Cyprus or Bulgaria in responding to Russia’s invasion and annexation of parts of Ukraine.
To those doubters, the president’s address offered scant comfort. Further tightening a doctrine he laid out in a speech to the United Nations last fall, Obama said the United States should act unilaterally only in defense of a narrow set of “core interests.” This binding of U.S. power places Obama at odds with every U.S. president since World War II.
In effect, he ruled out interventions to stop genocide or to reverse aggression absent a direct threat to the U.S. homeland or a multilateral initiative.
Despite Obama’s hope, one thing is abundantly clear as his administration enters its back stretch. The days of sweeping American power abroad are over, for now.
The president bears responsibility. But so does the Congress. Yet most important, the world itself is changing: 20 years of unbridled American economic, political and military order are coming to an end.
In Europe, Vladimir Putin has essentially won the contest over Ukraine, not only gaining the Crimea but destabilizing the nation that serves as buffer between his country and a U.S.-led Europe.
Speaking of Europe, the gains made in elections there by extreme nationalist and socialist parties are perfect examples of a Europe that is drifting out of the once predictable direction of the alliance with America.
China has turned up its nose at the notion of an American-led alliance in Asia — the fabled pivot — by continuing to provoke Vietnam over territorial claims in the South China Sea. Hanoi has pleaded for assistance from Washington, which has done nothing.
Elsewhere in the world, developments are outstripping the ability of the United States to influence them.
In what is left of his presidency, Obama will find himself reacting to global developments instead of shaping them. What arises next is likely to be a more multipolar world than we’ve known in two decades — indeed, 70 years — that will be surprising and even dangerous.
The country needs a new vision, a new strategy and one that goes far beyond the words at West Point. This will be the sole business not of this president but his successor.
Richard Parker, McClatchy-Tribune
Obama has made no catastrophic missteps in foreign policy over his term-and-a-half in office. And yet Obama’s foreign policy is seen as aimless, equivocal, and a projection of weakness and decline. White House officials think this is an image problem, but Obama and his top aides are missing something.
It is not true that he is uninterested in foreign policy. He can talk for hours with great fluidity on the subject. But he often sounds as if he’s auditioning for the role of foreign-policy analyst on the PBS “NewsHour.” It’s all logic and dispassion and half-measures.
Foreign policy, for him, is a management challenge: containing threats, quieting unhappy allies, limiting damage. There is no particular vision.
Obama is not the analyst in chief. He sometimes seems hesitant to set lofty goals — stopping the slaughter in Syria, rolling back the advance of autocracy — because he’s afraid that the words would commit him to action. And yet setting impossible goals, shining-city-on-a-hill goals, speaks to the noblest part of the American experience.
The White House has faced a strange conundrum for some time: Polls show that many Americans want a more modest foreign policy. Obama is giving people what they say they want. And yet his approval ratings remain generally low.
The best explanation comes from Robert Kagan, who wrote recently that Americans “may prefer a minimalist foreign policy in which the United States no longer plays a leading role in the world and leaves others to deal with their own miserable problems … But they’re not proud of it.”
On domestic issues, Obama sets grand goals. They may not be attained; he sets them anyway. I don’t want to see overreach in foreign policy. But more ambition, a bit more idealism? Over the past year, I’ve visited almost two dozen countries. Generally speaking, their leaders and people want more American leadership in the world, not less.
Jeffrey Goldberg, Bloomberg View
The war weariness the country feels is not Obama’s creation. His election was itself a response to that weariness. His foreign policy reflects a determination to move the country not to isolation but to the more measured approach to military intervention.
Those who believe the United States should underwrite a world order friendly to our values and interests need to accept that the promiscuous deployment of American troops abroad is the surest way to undermine support for this mission at home. In calling for restraint and realism, Obama may yet prove himself to be the best friend American internationalists have.
E.J. Dionne, Washington Post