Obama at West Point: A Foreign Policy of False Choices

The president says he's steering a sensible course between uber-hawks and do-nothings. Don't believe it.

Reuters/Joshua Roberts

An old joke describes the action memos the State Department prepares for the president:

Option A: Do nothing

Option B: Global thermonuclear war

Option C: Preferred State Department policy

On the evidence of President Obama’s commencement address at West Point on Wednesday, he’d have made an outstanding State Department memo-writer.

The president outlined a Washington policy debate occurring in three corners. Over in Corner 1 are those who believe in “a strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks.” Huddled in Corner 2 are those who insist that “conflicts in Syria or Ukraine or the Central African Republic are not ours to solve.” Between these obviously stupid extremes is a sensible third way, which happens to coincide perfectly with the policy of the Obama administration.

When politicians set up false alternatives in this way, it’s an early warning that their own record of achievement is less than stellar. “Some say that our forces should never land on any beaches at all. Others would have us invade every beach on earth. I reject both extremes” is not how President Roosevelt announced the success of D-Day.

If Obama had met his stated goals in Afghanistan … if the Russia “reset” had worked … if Iran talks were indeed producing nuclear disarmament … if the president's “red line” in Syria was not being crossed and recrossed like center-ice in an exciting hockey game … if his Libyan intervention had not resulted in Libya becoming a more violent and unstable place … if his administration had sustained the progress toward peace in Iraq achieved during George W. Bush’s second term—if all this had been the case, the president would have been content to simply present his impressive record. But it is not the case.

Obama’s core defense of his record is this:

[B]y most measures, America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world. Those who argue otherwise—who suggest that America is in decline, or has seen its global leadership slip away—are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics. Think about it. Our military has no peer. The odds of a direct threat against us by any nation are low, and do not come close to the dangers we faced during the Cold War.

Here, Obama is offering not a false alternative but a false claim. In 2014, China will overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy, as measured in terms of purchasing power parity. Measured in nominal currency terms, the overtaking may be postponed until the 2020s. However measured, the economic primacy the U.S. has maintained since the 1890s is rapidly nearing its end. Rarely stronger relative to the rest of the world? No.

Notice too the slippery, multi-conditional form of the president's boast about national security. “The odds of a direct threat against us by any nation are low.” That statement reveals the imprint of editing by aides who understand that indirect threats (such as the implosion of Western-oriented Arab regimes since 2010), threats against allies (such as the Russian threat to the Baltic republics or the Iranian threat to Israel), and threats by subnational actors (including all those al-Qaeda affiliates that attacked the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya) are all worse today than they were when the president took office.

As for the claim that U.S. global leadership is not “slipping away”—well, that judgment is more impressionistic. But to offer the testimony of just one individual observer: During two recent visits to Ukraine, I was startled by how seldom anybody I spoke with made reference to the actions of the U.S government—or to the example of American society. It was to the European Union that Ukrainians looked for help and inspiration. They took utterly for granted America’s lack of interest in their situation and inability to help. The United States remains ascendant for now. But it can’t plausibly be claimed that America is as ascendant today as it was 10 or 20 years ago.

Obama might personally think that America’s relative loss of clout is a trend beyond his control or correction. He would not be the first statesman to guide the foreign policy of a declining power. He would not even be the first American president to believe that such was his lot. Under adverse conditions, the responsibilities of leadership become even heavier than when times are easier. Yet embedded in the president’s West Point speech is a remarkably passive view of his office.

“We can’t call on others to make commitments to combat climate change if so many of our political leaders deny that it is taking place.” Can’t we? If unanimity at home is a precondition for achieving international objectives, then no international objective will ever be achieved. It’s in the nature of democracy that many things the government of the day wishes to do will be opposed by other political leaders. Successful presidents find ways to surmount wrong-headed opposition. Unsuccessful ones don’t. If Obama feels strongly about climate change—and he should!—then he has to devise a plan (and accept the risks) of action and persuasion. If he can’t persuade and won’t act, then he can’t shift blame for the failure of his office onto the obstinacy of other leaders. The other leaders are always there, and are always obstinate.

And sometimes those “other leaders” even turn out to be more astute and farseeing than the president they oppose. At West Point, Obama opened his discussion of Iran by claiming credit for the sanctions regime against Tehran. “[A]t the beginning of my presidency, we built a coalition that imposed sanctions on the Iranian economy,” he said. Yet the most effective of those sanctions—the Kirk-Menendez measures that isolated Iran from the international-payments system—were strenuously opposed by this president. He signed them into law only after the Senate attached them to the 2012 defense-authorization bill by a vote of 100-0.

Obama praised those who ask “tough questions.” But he himself escapes some of the toughest questions by offering pleasing but unreliable assurances: “America must always lead on the world stage. If we don’t, no one else will.” Must it? The evidence of the past few years shows that oftentimes America won’t or can’t. Nobody else will? That’s half -true: Nobody else will lead the world in directions that most citizens of most democracies still want to go. But there are plenty of other candidates who will lead the world in other, less congenial, directions. In recent years, those dangerous candidates have enjoyed disquieting success. The president’s speech at West Point inadvertently exposed how they have gotten away with it.