Obama's West Point Speech Is Our Problem, Not His

And as much as you might want a different foreign policy, it’s hard to say the president’s is not working.

May 29, 2014

Presidential speeches rarely persuade. And the president's speech at West Point on Wednesday was more an effort to rationalize a policy than to sell one. After all, it's year six of the Obama administration. I'm pretty sure by now that the chattering classes and the public know what they're getting from Barack Obama on foreign policy.

Add to that more than a few just-say-no Republicans and quite a few journalists, neocons, and liberal interventionists for whom saving Syria is the litmus test to judge Obama's entire foreign policy, and you can bet the West Point oratory won't be remembered as a demonstration of bold, imaginative thinking. Indeed, whatever boldness there was in the president's foreign policy died with its single most consequential act -- the willful and skillful decision to find and kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.

The disappointment with which the speech was received really is surprising only in this regard: The expectation that the transactor could become transformer; that the risk-averse president could somehow become risk-ready; or that a president who has willfully avoided militarizing the U.S. role in Syria would now be ready to. This isn't so much a testament to Obama's failings as it to our outsized expectations.

We're not listening and paying attention to what his priorities have been. Instead we whine and pine for the foreign policy president we want rather than the one we have. And we refuse to accept the possibility that Obama's view of the world -- visionless, minimalist, and focused far more on the middle class than the Middle East -- is well-suited to the times and, in certain respects, quite productive.

Do we need to be reminded that the president has been the Extricator-in-Chief from the beginning? That his strategic objective has been to get America out of the two longest and among the most profitless wars in its history?

Do we need to be told that he is determined to get the United States out of these wars and not get America into new ones? Or that the relationship between means and ends and the relationship between the application of American military power and the end state is open-ended and unclear?

Do we need to focus again on the fact that the one area where the president has indeed been prepared to be risk ready -- counterterrorism -- remains his most important goal?

Do we need to be told that doing diplomacy with Iran to avoid a U.S. war or an Israeli strike is his most important Middle East goal? Or that he believes he may well be positioned to achieve an agreement that will in fact take him off the nuclear hook by the time he leaves office?

Actually, we do.

Forget what the punditocracy thinks. On most of this stuff, Obama is on the verge of accomplishing all these goals. These are his priorities, whether we like it or not. And while the public apparently isn't pleased with his policies, they are actually more displeased with those who would have the country do and risk more abroad.

As presidential speeches go -- barring the line about the president's commitment to America as an indispensable nation (I don't think he really believes it) and the throwaway formulation about American exceptionalism (maybe so, but Obama knows it's not for export) -- it lays out a pretty faithful and accurate vision of how the president sees the world. And let's be clear: It's a world with narrowed options for American power.

This is a president convinced that most of the challenges America faces don't have easy solutions; instead, they have unpredictable outcomes. But many Americans still cling to the notion that their country can do what it wants, when it wants. Clearly, Obama doesn't believe the United States can hit these home runs. So, to use his baseball metaphor, it's singles and doubles.

This isn't the stuff of which foreign-policy legacies and legends are made. But if Guantanamo is closed, if a compelling deal with Iran is made, if a robust and effective counterterrorism policy is maintained that deters and hunts down al Qaeda, if Putin is checked in Eastern Europe, and if Bashar al-Assad is weakened over time, that would be pretty good.

Those who want a different approach will have to wait a bit longer. And, I might add, they'll probably get it. Hegel (not Chuck) would be proud of the dialectic at work. Obama's risk aversion was in large part a response to George W. Bush's headstrong plunge abroad in search of monsters to destroy. Likewise, the next president will almost certainly recalibrate again in favor of a more ready-set-go foreign policy. So be patient those of you who yearn for the good old days when men were men, women were women, and America stood tall in the world. Your time is almost at hand. I just hope you like what comes of it.