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A New Obama Doctrine at West Point?

Tags: Obama , Foreign Policy , Terrorism , Russia , China

Saunders, Paul J.

June 04, 2014

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While US President Obama’s May 28 commencement address at West Point was billed as a major policy statement, Paul Saunders notes that the president’s sweeping pronouncements failed to offer meaningful strategies to address pressing international issues.

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President Barack Obama’s foreign policy is increasingly under attack from all sides. Not only Republicans but many Democrats express disappointment with what many see as weak responses to international crises, especially in Syria and Ukraine. As in many past moments of domestic political turmoil, the White House sought to blunt this criticism with a major presidential speech—this time, the president’s May 28 commencement address at the US Military Academy at West Point. [http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/05/28/remarks-president-west-point-academy-commencement-ceremony] Although the speech has provoked considerable discussion, it appears to have done very little to reassure Mr. Obama’s critics.

More Questions than Answers

Before the speech, administration officials made a considerable effort to publicize it as a major statement by the president. Unfortunately, they do not appear to have devoted comparable effort to formulating the president’s remarks, which raise more questions than they answer about President Obama’s foreign policy goals and strategy.

President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address at the US Military Academy at West Point. © Official White House Photo by Pete Souza (CC BY 3.0 US)
President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address at the US Military Academy at West Point. © Official White House Photo by Pete Souza (CC BY 3.0 US)
For example, although the president said that “for the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America, at home and abroad, remains terrorism,” his only clear policy response to this threat was to announce a fund of “up to” $5 billion to support counterterrorism partnerships.

But if terrorism is “the most direct threat to America” doesn’t it require a more significant response? When explaining the fund, Mr. Obama clarified that “with the additional resources I’m announcing today, we will step up our efforts to support Syria’s neighbors—Jordan and Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq—as they contend with refugees and confront terrorists working across Syria’s borders.” So a part of this rather small $5 billion commitment will actually go to assisting refugees and not really to counterterrorism work at all.

More problematically, when listing new dangers in the world, President Obama began his list by saying that “Russia’s aggression towards former Soviet states unnerves capitals in Europe, while China’s economic rise and military reach worries its neighbors,” but then failed to outline a meaningful strategy for managing either separately or—more important—together, since China and Russia appear increasingly to be aligning with one another to resist the United States. This is a profound challenge for US foreign policy, and the fact that there is no “direct threat” to American territory does not make it a smaller one.

Similarly strikingly, after highlighting Russian and Chinese conduct several times in the speech and saying that “just as the world has changed, this architecture [of international institutions] must change,” Mr. Obama offers little to explain what he means. There is a large gap between his sweeping global pronouncements and his very modest and general policy statements, which call for NATO allies to “pull their weight,” “rules of the road” in cyberspace, a “code of conduct” for maritime disputes, and an international framework to combat climate change.

Is Foreign Policy a “Distraction”?

The president’s attempt to split the difference between his supporters and his critics by outlining the criteria for America’s use of military force also fell flat. Mr. Obama said that the United States should use force “when our core interests demand it” but that “the threshold for military action must be higher” when this is not the case.

While this may seem logical on the surface, it ignores a fundamental criterion for any policy-making—which option is likely to be most effective at an acceptable cost? If there is a good chance that it will work, unilateral military action might be appropriate in some cases where there is no direct threat to America and where multilateral approaches are too slow—such as in preventing genocide. Conversely, some “core interests” (which Obama defined to include “our livelihoods”) may be best protected by other means.

Why does Mr. Obama’s speech include so many general statements intended to reassure Americans and so little strategy or policy? Because it was conceived, written, and delivered as a political speech rather than a policy statement by a White House under attack. From this perspective, it is telling that in discussing the administration’s controversial drone strikes, the president said that “we have to be able to explain them publicly” and that “I will increasingly turn to our military to take the lead and provide information to the public about our efforts.”

In other words, the Obama administration will take credit for its counterterrorism successes in White House press briefings but delegate “transparency” about any problems to military media relations officers.

A similar message emerged from the high-profile resignation of General Eric Shinseki from his post as Secretary for Veterans Affairs just two days after the president’s West Point speech. Though generally well-regarded as a military officer, Shinseki was under heavy pressure due to failures in the military healthcare system, where some officials concealed the extensive delays that veterans faced in seeking medical care. When a reporter asked Mr. Obama why he changed his mind and decided to accept Shinseki’s resignation, the president said that although Shinseki had done exemplary work, the administration has to “deal with Congress and you guys [the press]” and that in Shinseki’s own judgment, he had become “a distraction.” [http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/05/30/statement-president]

Unfortunately, President Obama likewise seems to view most foreign policy as “a distraction” from his domestic political and policy objectives—something he has to deal with because Congress and the media constantly push for action on a variety of issues. The problem for the president is that it will require more than a muddled speech to satisfy them.

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