Obama at West Point: I Like Ike

Because of travel and other complications, I have been away from the electronic world for several days. There is nothing like sitting in a traffic-jammed taxi or in seat 23E on the O'Hare or LaGuardia tarmac to make you question the worth of further existence reduce one's electronic connections with the rest of humanity. 

As an occasion for re-entry, let me mention Pres. Obama's speech just now at West Point.* Considered simply as rhetoric, this was nothing special, at least by Obama-speech standards. It contained a variety of hoary foreign-policy-speech formulations, for instance this chestnut:

We must first recognize that our strength and influence abroad begins with the steps we take at home.

And, similarly:

Time and again, Americans have risen to meet--and to shape--moments of change.

I agree with both sentiments but am sorry to seem them stated this baldly. The speech began with an obligatory joke about the Commander in Chief's absolute power to forgive all "minor" transgressions by cadets; like most addresses at West Point it did a set-piece "duty, honor, country" riff; and it ended... well, you know how it ended, even in the prepared text.

Nonetheless, I thought the argument and emphases of the speech made it important and wise, though for a different reason from what immediate press accounts have stressed. The short-term point about the speech is how different it is from George W. Bush's argument for "preemptive war" at the same site eight years ago. The more significant point, to me, is how consistent Obama's argument was with one of the statements of U.S. interest and strategy that holds up best over time: Dwight Eisenhower's extraordinary "farewell address" to the nation nearly 50 years ago. That speech is best known for what it said about the military-industrial complex, but consider passages like this:

During the long lane of the history yet to be written, America knows that this world of ours, ever growing smaller, must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect. Such a confederation must be one of equals. The weakest must come to the conference table with the same confidence as do we, protected as we are by our moral, economic, and military strength. That table, though scarred by many past frustrations, cannot be abandoned for the certain agony of the battlefield.
Disarmament, with mutual honor and confidence, is a continuing imperative. Together we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose.

(Intellectual father of Obama's speech:)
dwight_eisenhower_.jpgNow, that is speechwriting -- and, in my view, that is also statesmanship. Such are the changes in American politics, and such are the differences in standing-to-speak between a retired five-star-general and victorious commander of Allied troops, age 70 at the time of the address, and a 48-year-old first-term president with no direct military or diplomatic experience, that the same sentiments that marked Eisenhower and George C. Marshall as men of wisdom would be condemned as borderline-treasonous by Obama's critics. (Imagine the Fox News analysis of "Disarmament ... is a continuing imperative.") But this address, like its intellectual predecessors by SecDef Robert Gates, is a return to the best and most sustainable tradition of post-World War II American foreign policy. And that is something.

I could say, read Obama's speech -- and please do (when the White House gets around to putting it on its website, where it has not yet appeared). But really, you should make sure to read Eisenhower's.
* I discuss this speech, and its continuity with Eisenhower's address, with Guy Raz on Weekend All Things Considered this afternoon.

** Bonus point: In addition to the conceptual links to Eisenhower's address and policy, I noted with satisfaction this recurring Niebuhrian refrain. Obama:

We understand change doesn't come quick. We understand that neither America nor any nation can dictate every outcome beyond its borders. We know that a world of mortal men and women will never be rid of oppression or evil. What we can do, what we must do, is work and reach and fight for the world that we seek--all of us, those in uniform and those who are not.

A previous president:

We live in a world that is imperfect and which will always be imperfect--a world that is complex and confused and which will always be complex and confused. I understand fully the limits of moral suasion. We have no illusion that changes will come easily or soon. But I also believe that it is a mistake to undervalue the power of words and of the ideas that words embody. In our own history, that power has ranged from Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream."

This was Jimmy Carter, at Notre Dame, in 1977; for the record, a speech I was involved with.

(The intellectual father Obama doesn't talk about:)

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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