As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama promised to bring us together and, on foreign policy, he may be making belated progress. Last week, he gave the commencement address at West Point, turning an occasion to congratulate the cadets for their hard work and thank them for their future service into an opportunity to congratulate and thank himself. The news here is not that his remarks brought criticism from his usual critics, but that this time even many knee-jerk cheerleaders could not get their joints jumping.
The first sentence of the lead news story on Page One of The New York Times on Thursday: “President Obama tried once more to articulate his vision of the American role in the world .” Tried? Once more?
In the past, the story added, Mr. Obama has “taken pains to note” that the terrorist threat “could be dealt with ‘smartly and proportionately.’” (More precisely: Two years ago, top White House counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan called al Qaeda a “shadow of its former self,” while administration allies proclaimed the organization “defeated.”) At the U.S. Military Academy, however, the president acknowledged that “the most direct threat to America at home and abroad remains terrorism.” Those of us who have been saying that all along received no shout-outs.
Now the president has only given additional ammunition to America’s enemies by announcing the release from the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, of five hardened terrorist leaders in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. Yes, it is a good thing when an American soldier is freed from his captors, but is the Taliban justified in celebrating this as their victory and our defeat? What’s the chance that these terrorists will soon be back on the battlefield? If it’s true that Sgt. Bergdahl went AWOL or even deserted, did his parents deserve the president’s embrace in the Rose Garden? These and many other questions should be answered in the days ahead. Serious journalists will demand that.
Moving from the front page to the editorial page, The Times pointed out that Mr. Obama’s speech had been “heralded” as a “big moment, when he would lay out his foreign-policy vision for the remainder of his term and refute his critics.” In the event, the “address was largely uninspiring, lacked strategic sweep and is unlikely to quiet his detractors on the right or left.”
CNN chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto also thought the speech “fell short of its target.” Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said it failed to “articulate a rationale for what we should be doing.” The editors at Bloomberg predicted the address was “unlikely to tamp down criticism of his conduct of foreign policy as weak, indecisive and unconvincing. Most troubling is the mushiness of the initiatives he proposes .”
The Washington Post, not a reflexive Obama supporter, was nonetheless unusually scathing. The president, it opined, had “marshaled a virtual corps of straw men,” while expanding on a doctrine that “places Mr. Obama at odds with every U.S. president since World War II. In effect, he ruled out interventions to stop genocide or reverse aggression absent a direct threat to the U.S. homeland or a multilateral initiative.” This doctrine, noted The Post, rules out Mr. Obama’s own proposal to punish Syria for using chemical weapons, but “not the war in Iraq, which was a multilateral campaign.”
The speech was rife with such muddles. For example, regarding negotiations over Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, the president said the “odds of success are still long,” adding that there is a “very real chance of achieving a breakthrough agreement.” Mathematically, can “long odds” ever offer a “very real chance”?
He went on to say that such an agreement would be “more effective and durable than what we could have achieved through the use of force.” No evidence was provided in support of that claim, but more to the point: Few, if any, members of Congress have advocated the use of force. What a strong bipartisan majority has favored is credibly warning Iran’s rulers that they will be hit with sanctions tough enough to collapse their economy if they continue to violate international law and refuse compromise.
The president has chosen instead to substantially relieve the economic pressure on Iran. The fear now is that a final deal will be signed, and it will be a bad deal spun as a good deal, one that leaves the No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism — as ranked by the U.S. government — with a nuclear-weapons capability.
How did Mr. Obama, a smart man and a talented politician, end up in this conceptual cul-de-sac? Part of the explanation, I think, is that he came to the White House eager to test theories advocated by opponents of the foreign-policy doctrines developed by Henry “Scoop” Jackson, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Jack Kemp, Ronald Reagan, George Bush and others labeled as conservatives and neoconservatives.
That meant attempting to “engage” those who have declared themselves America’s enemies, notably Iran’s rulers; seeking strategic partnerships with adversaries, in particular Russian President Vladimir Putin; assuming that drones alone could defeat Islamist terrorists in a new age characterized by a “receding tide of war”; and imagining that the United Nations was resolving conflicts and enforcing “universal norms” embraced by “the international community.”
Experiments that fail can teach as much as experiments that succeed. What’s so distressing about Mr. Obama’s West Point speech is that it demonstrates no learning — just pounds of petulance, defensiveness and narcissism. How else to interpret his dismissal of those concerned that America has gone into retreat and decline during his tenure as “either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics”?
This president — indeed all Americans — would benefit from a revitalized debate on the U.S. role in the world in the 21st century and how best to defend ourselves from those committed to our destruction.
I don’t take the view that all the best minds thinking about these issues are conservatives or neocons. Walter Russell Mead of Bard College, Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic and Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution are among those whose ideas are worth serious consideration (as was made clear to me last month when I was privileged to moderate a discussion among them). Both Mr. Obama’s critics and supporters should at least be able to agree on that.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.