Is Obama Pivoting to Foreign Policy – Again?
The military academy at West Point has been “staged” to have the President of the United States as the keynote speaker for its commencement 14 times in its history. Each time, the president used it to outline his foreign and military policy. This year was no different.
But, there is one difference. Polls show growing discontent with the incoherence of the Obama foreign policy. He is perceived by voters and foreign leaders as weak and indecisive.
In order to counter this perception, Obama spoke to the graduating class of West Point on Wednesday in a speech that the White House said was to be a major foreign policy speech. In reality, it was less a speech outlining Obama’s view of American foreign policy than a weak defense of his current policy, which has received criticism from both sides of the political spectrum. In many cases, he took credit for policy decisions that he has fought for years. For instance, on Syria, the new plan he announced – vaguely saying he’ll “work with Congress to ramp up support” for some Syrian rebels – is precisely the proposal that many members of his own Cabinet, and other politicians outside the administration, have been making for two years. He offered no explanation whatsoever for why he is now accepting advice he has been rejecting for all that time.
It was clear that the Commander-in-Chief was less than popular with the audience as only about a quarter of the attendees stood up and applauded when he was introduced. Applause was tepid throughout the speech and reflected a military that is facing morale problems thanks to the growing political nature of the American military. This is reflected in the hemorrhaging of mid career military talent as non commissioned officers and middle grade commissioned officers leave the military to seek jobs in the private sector.
Obama’s biggest applause line was not for a policy position, but in praise of a former West Point cadet who was wounded in Afghanistan. Gavin White, “lost one of his legs in an attack,” Obama said. “I met him last year at Walter Reed. He was wounded, but just as determined as the day that he arrived here. He developed a simple goal. Today, his sister Morgan will graduate. And true to his promise, Gavin will be there to stand and exchange salutes with her.”
Defending Obama’s Foreign Policy
In many ways, the speech contradicted itself, as Obama tried to defend himself from both liberal and conservative critics. Early in the speech, he said, “America must always lead on the world stage.” A few minutes later he reversed course and said, “we have to work with others because collective action in these circumstances is more likely to succeed, more likely to be sustained, less likely to lead to costly mistakes.”
He defended his policy as the center road that lies between, “self-described realists” who resist foreign conflicts altogether and their extreme opposition, the “interventionists from the left and right.” He later took aim at “skeptics,” who “often downplay the effectiveness of multilateral action. For them, working through international institutions, or respecting international law, is a sign of weakness. I think they’re wrong.” As he frequently does, Obama castigated those who offer “false choices” in foreign policy — intervention vs. isolation, war vs. diplomacy. He also noted that he was elected to stop wars, not start them. Yet, he failed to outline how his contradictory policy offers better results.
The speech was also political. During his remarks, Obama went after his political opponents, saying that in their criticisms of a weakened U.S. they were “either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics.” He assured the audience that the United States would maintain its leading role in the world and said that “America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world,” He also criticized members of Congress for failing to “lead by example” on issues like climate change and the Law of the Sea treaty.
He urged a more measured approach to conflict abroad that would avoid what he described as the impulse of some to intervene militarily wherever problems exist. And, he regularly referred to multilateral action.
“The military that you have joined is, and always will be, the backbone of that leadership. But U.S. military action cannot be the only — or even primary — component of our leadership in every instance,” he said. “Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.”
“You leave this place to carry forward a legacy that no other military in human history can claim. And you do so as part of a team that extends beyond your units or even our Armed Forces,” he concluded. “You will embody what it means for America to lead.”
Obama was quick to note his own accomplishments by noting that his administration had “decimated” al-Qaeda and that “Osama bin Laden is no more.” He also defended his efforts in Syria and Ukraine, among other countries.
A Future Direction?
The White House had promised a major foreign policy speech. However, with the exception of some details, such as the drawdown of troops in Afghanistan, the establishment of a new Counterterrorism Partnership fund, and a renewed interest in Syria, there was nothing new in what he presented.
However, the speech did give an idea of how Obama viewed the world and how the US would pursue foreign policy in his final two years as he outlined, “my vision for how the United States of America and our military should lead in the years to come, for you will be part of that leadership.”
As expected for a speech at a military academy, Obama reiterated the fact that if American core interests demand it, he will use military force. However, he was vague on when and where it would be used, saying, “when our people are threatened, when our livelihoods are at stake, when the security of our allies is in danger. In these circumstances, we still need to ask tough questions about whether our actions are proportional and effective and just.”
Obama did admit that decentralized terrorist groups comprise the most direct threat to America today. He told the graduates, “I believe we must shift our counterterrorism strategy — drawing on the successes and shortcomings of our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan — to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold.” He said he will ask Congress for $5 billion to partner with and to train countries threatened by terrorists. This will include some funds for the moderate opposition groups inside Syria, although he said, “As frustrating as it is, there are no easy answers, no military solution that can eliminate the terrible suffering anytime soon.”
As he has stated numerous times, Obama said the U.S. must strengthen international institutions and alliances. These, Obama explained, provide the new leadership channels for 21st-century conflict resolution. He took credit for easing tensions in the Ukraine, by claiming the U.S. shaped world opinion and gathered European support that isolated Russia, “giving a chance for the Ukrainian people to choose their future.” Obama tried to tie the Senate’s refusal to ratify a “Law of the Sea” treaty with Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea. He accused the Senate of “retreat” and “weakness.”
Obama also tied American foreign policy to the campaign for human dignity. He said, “America’s support for democracy and human rights goes beyond idealism — it is a matter of national security. Democracies are our closest friends and are far less likely to go to war. Economies based on free and open markets perform better and become markets for our goods. Respect for human rights is an antidote to instability and the grievances that fuel violence and terror.” He claimed a victory in Burma due to American diplomacy.
Obama did speak directly about events in the Middle East. He reiterated that he would continue to pressure the government in Egypt. However, he did note, “In countries like Egypt, we acknowledge that our relationship is anchored in security interests — from peace treaties with Israel, to shared efforts against violent extremism. So we have not cut off cooperation with the new government, but we can and will persistently press for reforms that the Egyptian people have demanded.”
Obama defended his approach toward Iran’s nuclear program. He said, “Similarly, despite frequent warnings from the United States and Israel and others, the Iranian nuclear program steadily advanced for years. But at the beginning of my presidency, we built a coalition that imposed sanctions on the Iranian economy, while extending the hand of diplomacy to the Iranian government. And now we have an opportunity to resolve our differences peacefully.”
“The odds of success are still long, and we reserve all options to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. But for the first time in a decade, we have a very real chance of achieving a breakthrough agreement — one that is more effective and durable than what we could have achieved through the use of force. And throughout these negotiations, it has been our willingness to work through multilateral channels that kept the world on our side.”
Syria was clearly a major issue as he stated that the US would start providing more support for the Syrian rebels. Although he made it clear that US troops wouldn’t be committed to Syria, he did say, “But that does not mean we shouldn’t help the Syrian people stand up against a dictator who bombs and starves his own people. And in helping those who fight for the right of all Syrians to choose their own future, we are also pushing back against the growing number of extremists who find safe haven in the chaos.”
“So 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. I will work with Congress to ramp up support for those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists and brutal dictators. And we will continue to coordinate with our friends and allies in Europe and the Arab World to push for a political resolution of this crisis, and to make sure that those countries and not just the United States are contributing their fair share to support the Syrian people.”
Is this a Real Pivot or a Rhetorical One?
Over the past five years, Obama has said many things and promised “pivots” to critical issues. But he has regularly failed to follow through on them. Is this new, more aggressive foreign policy one of those?
Probably. The reality is that 2014 is an election year – one that will shape the last two years of his administration. And, elections pivot on domestic policy, not foreign policy. Obama will be focused on keeping the US Senate in Democratic hands rather than focusing on what is happening overseas.
In the end, this was a political event – being seen in the presence of American soldiers as the Commander-in-Chief helps him as the US military is still widely respected by the American population. It gave him a chance to boost his popularity, rebut his critics, and sound forceful. However, it will not likely mark a change in the woefully lacking foreign policy of the Obama Administration.
Citizen-Soldiers in a Time of Transition – The Future of the U.S. Army National Guard
By Stephanie Sanok Kostro
Center for Strategic and International Studies
May 28, 2014
Currently, U.S. armed forces are facing a rapidly shifting environment. Even as the major combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq that defined the last decade are coming to an end, a wide variety of new and evolving challenges, both abroad and at home, are confronting the nation’s military. The U.S. Army National Guard faces a unique set of dynamics, given its role in domestic as well as overseas operations. As the Army National Guard considers its future, it asked the CSIS Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program to provide an independent analysis of the strategic-level issues facing the Guard as well as its evolving roles and missions. This report provides policymakers and practitioners with objective insights and recommendations to assist in outlining potential future responsibilities for the Army National Guard.
President Obama’s Announcement on Troop Levels in Afghanistan: No Plan, No Transparency, No Credibility, and No Leadership
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
May 28, 2014
President Obama announced troop levels for Afghanistan on May 27th in ways that make no effort to present a real plan or strategy. He simply set dates certain for the elimination of a meaningful U.S. military presence in 2015 – ignoring the fact that leaving half of 9,800 troops in Afghanistan in 2016 is too small in enabling capability to meet Afghan needs. He said: “Today, I want to be clear about how the United States is prepared to advance those missions. At the beginning of 2015, we will have approximately 98,000 U.S. — let me start that over, just because I want to make sure we don’t get this written wrong. At the beginning of 2015, we will have approximately 9,800 U.S. service members in different parts of the country, together with our NATO allies and other partners. By the end of 2015, we will have reduced that presence by roughly half, and we will have consolidated our troops in Kabul and on Bagram Airfield. One year later, by the end of 2016, our military will draw down to a normal embassy presence in Kabul, with a security assistance component, just as we’ve done in Iraq.”
Doubling down on a muddled foreign policy – The president has somehow managed to combine the worst features of isolationism and multilateralism.
By John R. Bolton
American Enterprise Institute
May 28, 2014
The Wall Street Journal
At West Point on Wednesday, President Obama told the graduating seniors that he had discovered a middle way in foreign policy between isolationism and military interventionism. To the White House, this was like “the dawn come up like thunder outer China,” in Kipling’s phrase. Others were less impressed, especially since it took five-plus years of on-the-job training to grasp this platitude. Of course the United States has options between war and complete inaction. Not since Nixon has a president so relished uncovering middling alternatives between competing straw men. When any president speaks, he engages in more than academic analysis. But playing with words, at which Mr. Obama excels, improves nothing in his record. Inattention to foreign threats and challenges as diverse as Islamic terrorism or China’s increasing belligerence in the East Asian littoral; inconsistency and ineptitude in pursuing his own policies, as in Syria and Libya; and indecisiveness in confronting threats like Russia’s pressure on Ukraine and Iran’s nuclear-weapons program all hang like albatrosses around his presidential tenure. Mr. Obama’s speech only further muddled the administration’s contradictory messages on foreign policy.
A Russian Strategy for Afghanistan After the Coalition Troop Withdrawal
By Dmitri Trenin, Oleg Kulakov, Alexey Malashenko, and Petr Topychkanov
May 22, 2014
Twenty-five years after Soviet troops left the country, Afghanistan is facing another historical crossroads, this time on the eve of the withdrawal of U.S.-led international coalition combat troops, the International Security Assistance Force, scheduled to depart by the end of 2014. The country’s present is unstable, and its future is uncertain—will it develop progressively, or is it bound for chaos and regression, as was the case after the Soviet troop withdrawal? Potential threats and risks associated with post-withdrawal Afghanistan are a matter of concern for neighboring countries and the international community. In addition, reduced American military presence and weaker U.S. interest in the country will increase the role other great powers and neighboring nations—mainly Russia and China, as well as Pakistan, Iran, India, and states from both the Gulf and Central Asia—will play in Afghanistan.
Israel and the Middle East: Seeking Common Ground
German Marshall Fund
May 26, 2014
On May 26, GMF hosted the first public panel discussion between a former Saudi head of intelligence, HRH Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, and a former Israeli head of military intelligence, General Amos Yadlin. The debate, which was moderated by David Ignatius, columnist and associate editor at The Washington Post, focused on the position of the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East context and the current security situation in the region. During a very engaging debate, the various efforts for the resolution of the Arab-Israeli dispute were assessed.
Between Not-In and All-In: U.S. Military Options in Syria
By Chandler P. Atwood, Joshua C. Burgess, Michael Eisenstadt, and Joseph D. Wawro
Policy Notes 18
The Syrian war has left more than 150,000 dead and more than 9 million displaced. With diplomacy and sanctions having failed to achieve their objectives, the Obama administration is reportedly considering a more proactive role in the conflict. The impulse to refrain from military intervention remains understandable, but the costs of nonintervention may be even steeper: an al-Qaeda foothold and expanded Iranian influence in the Levant, a new generation of jihadists poised to migrate to other conflicts, social tensions and political instability in neighboring states, and growing doubts about U.S. credibility. Nor does military intervention necessarily imply boots on the ground. Many options entail lower levels of force, including strengthened sanctions and cyberoperations, force build-ups, or an enhanced effort to equip and train the moderate opposition. The window may have closed for seeking a positive outcome in Syria, but by acting wisely yet assertively, the United States may yet secure its interests.
Mounzer A. Sleiman Ph.D.
Center for American and Arab Studies
Think Tanks Monitor
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