Obama's foreign policy: Common sense (but little to be proud of)

  • Article by: MULTIPLE AUTHORS
  • Updated: May 29, 2014 - 6:26 PM

Commentary from the around the country dissects the president's foreign policy speech.


President Obama delivered the commencement address during a graduation and commissioning ceremony at the U.S. Military Academy on Wednesday, May 28, 2014, in West Point, N.Y. In a broad defense of his foreign policy, the president declared that the U.S. remains the world’s most indispensable nation, even after a “long season of war,” but he argued for restraint before embarking on more military adventures.

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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.

Bloomberg View


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