Obama Wants to Redefine What Makes a Foreign Policy Muscular

Military analysis.
May 28 2014 4:29 PM

Obama Lays Siege to His Critics

At West Point, President Obama defends a foreign policy vision based on more than U.S. military might.

Barack Obama at West Point
President Obama arrives at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, to deliver the commencement address to the 2014 graduating class on May 28, 2014.

Photo by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama’s speech at West Point on Wednesday morning could be called a tribute to common sense, except that the sense it made is so uncommon. The ensuing cable pundits’ complaints—that it was insufficiently “muscular” or “robust”—only proved how necessary this speech was.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan

Obama’s point was not (contrary to some commentators’ claims) to draw a “middle-of-the-road” line between isolationism and unilateralism. That’s a line so broad almost anyone could walk it.

The president’s main point was to emphasize that not every problem has a military solution; that the proper measure of strength and leadership is not merely the eagerness to deploy military power; that, in fact, America’s costliest mistakes have stemmed not from restraint but from rushing to armed adventures “without thinking through the consequences, without building international support and legitimacy for our action, without leveling with the American people about the sacrifice required.”

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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 don’t threaten our core interests. In those cases, “the threshold for military action must be higher”; and if force is used, “we should not go it alone,” for the practical reason that “collective action in these circumstances is more likely to succeed, more likely to be sustained, and less likely to lead to costly mistakes.”

Again, all this should seem obvious. The problem is, it isn’t to everybody. As journalist Jeffrey Goldberg tweeted, “On second reading, much of Obama’s speech seems like a subtweet directed at John McCain.” It’s not just McCain who needs rebutting. It’s Sen. Lindsey Graham, who will go anywhere, anytime, to sit before a TV camera and call Obama’s foreign policy “feckless.” It’s an otherwise seasoned journalist like CNN’s Christiane Amanpour lamenting Obama’s lack of “robustness.” It’s 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.

Obama cited Ukraine as an example of where and why his critics are, as he starkly put it, “wrong.” When Russian President Vladimir Putin forcibly annexed Crimea, amassed troops near eastern Ukraine, and sent agents to rile secessionist fever across the border, many of Obama’s critics urged him to send American troops to Kiev, buzz the border with the most advanced combat planes, even put Ukraine on a fast track for NATO membership. When he didn’t do these things, he was denounced, once again, as weak, tepid, feckless, and an unreliable ally.

But Obama in his speech 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; officials from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe monitored the May 25 election (and exposed the ethnic-Russian separatists’ obstructions in the east). And as a result of all this, the Ukrainians elected a new president who seems capable of bridging the west and the east, of moving gradually toward the EU while staying steady in Russia’s orbit, and it seems that the crisis is winding down. Troubles remain, but the prospects of a violent East-West confrontation have receded. Obama said in his speech that all this happened “because of American leadership … without us firing a shot”—a boast that’s hard to dispute.

The speech wasn’t entirely a riposte to Obama’s critics. There’s a reason that the graduating cadets of West Point made for a fitting audience. While today’s servicemen and -women will go and fight wherever they’re ordered, and do so for the most part with determination and courage, much evidence suggests that they’re also tiring of this long decade-plus of war. The first cheers for the speech came early, when Obama said, “You are the first class to graduate since 9/11 who may not be sent into combat in Iraq or Afghanistan.” Another applause line: “At the end of this year, a new Afghan president will be in office, and America’s combat mission will be over.” A similar comment drew a roar of approval when Obama spoke to a Memorial Day rally of 3,000 American troops in Afghanistan.

Obama does have a tendency sometimes to demolish straw men, and he indulged it most blatantly on Wednesday morning when discussing Syria. “As president,” he said, “I made a decision that we should not put American troops into the middle of this increasingly sectarian war, and I believe that is the right decision.” But none of his advisers was proposing that he should put troops on the ground. Many of these advisers—including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the CIA director, and his secretaries of state and defense—did recommend a plan to supply weapons to a select group of Syrian rebels. Obama rejected that idea, for what seemed to be good reasons: Iran and Russia would match and exceed any buildup, so aid would only escalate the conflict, to the point where we’d have to get involved, and, meanwhile, it seemed implausible that arms could be kept in the hands of the “good rebels” and away from the “bad rebels.” Still, even many of Obama’s aides privately say that, in retrospect, they should have given the plan a try. Given this history, when he said in his speech that we should help “those who fight for the right of all Syrians to choose their own future,” it’s not clear what he means.

Still, consider the alternatives. If many of 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? That is what the speech was about: to explain under what circumstances, and in what way, he will use force—and under what circumstances he’ll look for other solutions to problems. He owes this, above all, to the new officers who have volunteered to fight the wars that he and future presidents might decide to wage.

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