In the days before President Obama delivered the commencement address at West Point, his aides conceded in news accounts that he had not yet put his priorities in foreign policy into a clear, comprehensive framework. That absence has opened the door to critics who see the White House stumbling from crisis to crisis, its uncertainty, or reluctance to take the initiative, eroding American leadership abroad.
How did the president do at the military academy? At this point in his presidency, he does risk the “not another speech” reaction, or understandable skepticism about the power of his words. The speech did not shape his outlook with a compelling, new structure. It was flat, and succumbed to erecting straw men, as others have noted, the president anxious to contrast his subtleties with the simple remedies of critics.
That said, the president, in the main, deserves better than much of the criticism allows. There is something artificial about the wish to see a foreign policy through a doctrine, events fitting snugly within a frame. Presidencies are really about their general tilt. It makes sense that the Obama presidency has pulled back from the George W. Bush years of more aggressive military intervention that produced long, costly and frustrating wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In his way, the president has encouraged an important conversation about the limits of American power. As he put it in his speech, the question isn’t whether the United States must lead but about how it should do so. He placed the emphasis, and rightly so, on acting in concert with other nations, seeking to anticipate unintended consequences and leveling with the American people about the sacrifice required.
That doesn’t mean the president has pushed aside the idea of the United States acting on its own. It will do so, he stressed, when “core interests” are at stake. Would the president balk at moving against genocide or resist reversing aggression, as critics warn? He wouldn’t be the first president to do so.
What experience has taught is that the particular circumstances are defining. Public opinion matters. So does the likelihood of success. The world is messy, and the Obama tilt is to stay away from paths that too easily could lead to something worse.
American foreign policy should promote democracy, liberty and consensus-building at the center, plus the institutions required to support them. That gets complicated, as Egypt indicates, moderates pushing for the ouster of the elected Muslim Brotherhood. In the Syrian civil war, it isn’t hard to see how American-supplied weapons could fall into the hands of Islamic extremists.
No question, the Obama White House has stumbled abroad, say, in its pivot to Asia, a crucial trade agreement still out of reach. The West Point speech did not advance much understanding of what the pivot precisely seeks.
At the same time, events elsewhere have intervened and diverted attention. The important thing, again, is the direction a presidency takes. A superpower may not warm to a discussion about its limits or what it cannot accomplish. That is not a subject politicians like to address, yet it is essential to sound decision-making. The president deserves much credit for raising it.