Obama’s West Point Rejection of American Foreign Policy History
On May 28, 2014, President Barack Obama delivered what was touted as a major foreign policy address at the US Military Academy, West Point—and an effort to silence those critics, on both the Left and Right, who have labeled his approach to international affairs as disastrous. The overwhemingly-negative response to his speech indicates that the President, to put it mildly, failed to win over his critics. But why? And where does this latest attempt at articulating an “Obama Doctrine” fall on the historical range of American modes of foreign policy?
One reason that critics on both sides of the political spectrum derided Obama’s West Point speech might be that his cliches have become not only tiresome but increasingly inaccurate and divorced from reality. For example, Obama claimed yet again that al-Qaida’s [AQ] leadership has been “decimated.” But that doesn’t seem to have slowed down AQ in the Islamic Maghrib, AQ in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQ in Iraq (now known as ISIS, “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria”), nor the other three dozen or so Islamic jihadist groups operating around the world, which altogether perpetrated almost 10,000 attacks killing over 18,000 people in 2014. For that matter, the President yet again managed to dance around the ideology behind “schoolgirls…kidnapped in Nigeria,” “battle-hardened extremist groups” in Syria, and those seemingly anonymous and non-ideological terrorists whom we will pay partners $5 billion to help us fight. As he’s done since the first major foreign policy address of his Presidency, that in Cairo in 2009, Obama refused to acknowledge that the violent ideology behind Boko Haram, ISIS and AQ is the same: an Islam that understands the Qur’an, as well as the example and sayings of its founder, Muhammad, literally. Until the POTUS admits that reality, allowing us to attempt to counter the underlying ideology, no amount of drone strikes will solve the problem. Geopolitically, the President asserted that “America has never been stronger relative to the rest of the world” and dismissed those who disagree as “either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics.” Yet the fact is that measured both by military personnel under arms and military spending, as well as by America’s percentage of global GDP, the US was far stronger in 1950 (and probably in 1918 and 1865, as well) than it is today. And even his claim that “more people live under elected governments today than at any time in human history” was at best half-right. As “The Economist” pointed out recently, “even though around 40% of the world’s population, more people than ever before, live in countries that will hold free and fair elections this year, democracy’s global advance has come to a halt, and may even have gone into reverse” with “2013... the eighth consecutive year in which global freedom declined.”
Moving into strategy, Obama declared that his international affairs methodology would avoid two extremes: that of “self-described realists” who say Syria or Ukraine or Central African Republic are no concerns of ours; and of “interventionists from the left and right” who bemoan American diffidence before al-Assad or Putin as unconscionable and inviting future aggression. The President said his innovative foreign policy would differ from these two simplistic approaches in three ways: 1) the US would use military power, even unilaterally, to defend “core interests” (threats to “our people,” to “our livelihoods,” and to security of our allies); 2) it would not include “invading every country that harbors terrorist networks”; and 3) it would “strengthen and enforce international order.”
The first is conveniently vague: does “our people” mean those dwelling in the American homeland only? One might note that it certainly doesn’t seem to include American Christians being beaten in an Iranian prison, American ambassadors and security personnel killed by Islamists in Libya, while “security of our allies” does not encompass Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula being annexed by Russia.
The second is a straw man argument which should be beneath any public POTUS utterance; no opposition political figure, not even Obama’s favorite punching bag, former President George W. Bush, has ever advocated invading every country harboring terrorist networks—and Obama certainly knows this. What many do support is acknowledging the primary ideology behind most of the planet’s terrorist organizations—literalist Islam—and countering that; but since Obama would not speak this inconvenient truth, he resorted to grossly misrepresenting his opponents’ position.
As for Obama’s third point: he elevated support for international organizations to a pinnacle heretofore only seen in the Wilson Administration—if even then. The 44th POTUS went so far as to claim that American exceptionalism “is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it is our willingness to affirm them through our actions.” Obama managed to grossly misrepresent the historical understanding of American exceptionalism (and also, yet again, show his penchant for setting up and terminating straw men). As Seymour Martin Lipset pointed out in his excellent book American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword (1996), American exceptionalism, historically, rested on the foundations of revolutionary ideology, individual liberty, Christianity, and distate for socialism. Never has it encompassed, intrinsically, thumbing its nose at the international order. (But since Obama appears to disagree with the latter three of those four aspects, it is little wonder he thought it necessary to dismiss them as aspects of American civilization.) Obama then adduced “climate change” as a foe worthy of combatting, and mocked “a whole lot of our political leaders [who] deny that is it taking place.” This marked his third deployment of a straw man opponent in one public address, since many Republican leaders do not deny “climate change”—they simply question 1) whether humans are causing it; and/or 2) if it’s indeed as bad as Obama and his ilk claim. But beyond that: just how the newly-minted Army 2nd Lieutenants graduating from West Point would do battle against the Earth itself remained unexplained by POTUS.
Walter McDougall published Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World since 1776 in 1997. It remains one of the best overall assessments of US foreign and military policy vis-à-vis the rest of the world. McDougall posited four “Promised Land” and four “Crusader State” modes practiced in various phases of US history (roughly chronological): the former encompassed Liberty/Exceptionalism, Isolationism, Monroe Doctrine/American System and Manifest Destiny/Expansionism; the latter included Progressive Imperialism, Liberal Internationalism/Wilsonianism, Containment and Global Meliorism. Placing Obama’s West Point-delivered doctrine on McDougall’s typology is problematic: the “realists” and “interventionists” he excoriated would seem to be, respectively, the “avoid entangling alliances”-Isolationists and the Global Meliorists who attempted to impose market economies and democracy by force. Obama’s posited foreign policy, with its suggested subservience of American power to the United Nations, is perhaps most like Liberal Internationalism as espoused and practiced by the 28th POTUS—but with far less faith in the US as the “savior” of the world. Indeed, Woodrow Wilson seemed to believe that international organizations should be infused with positive American traits such as openness and participatory democracy—whereas Obama, on the contrary, appears to want to make his own country more like the rest of the world and less of an outlier (as it is, in particular, in its Christian faith compared to most other nations).
Open admirers of Obama in the past have portrayed his doctrine as “a form of realism unafraid to deploy American power but mindful that its use must be tempered by practical limits and a dose of self-awareness.” But beyond drone strikes against the seemingly inexhaustible supply of al-Qa`ida “number twos,” Obama appears quite adept at finding ways to limit deploying the military—although one could argue quite plausibly that his self-awareness consists in simply reflecting the American public’s distaste for both of Bush’s post-9/11 wars. (Even this writer thinks that 13 years attempting to turn tribal and Muslim fundamentalist Afghanistan into a democracy is quite long enough.) But a POTUS must be enough of a leader to shape, not simply mirror, public opinion; and so where Obama can be most plausibly critiqued in this regard is his chronic failure to admit—indeed, his outright denial—that the world has an Islamic terrorism problem and not merely an “extremist” one. As such, what POTUS needs to articulate is a Containment policy for Islamic ideology and violence, akin to that which the US supported against Communism from 1947 until the USSR’s collapse in 1991. But a man who has spent his first five years in the Oval Office resolutely whitewashing Islamic doctrines and history is almost certainly beyond enlightened transformation by now.
Obama rejects the idea of American “Promised Land” foreign policy, at least as long as this nation is rife with alleged flaws (income inequality, rampant racism, etc.). He clearly also detests any hint of its former role as a global Crusader State, fighting to inculcate truth, justice and the American way. Following McDougall’s typology, then, perhaps the current POTUS’ view might be that the US is, at best, a “Remnant” of what it should be—not all bad, but definitely not exceptional and far below Reagan’s “shining city on a hill.” My sons may apply to West Point in a few years; perhaps by then a new POTUS will have articulated a more cogent, compelling and charitable view of America’s place on the planet than that presented at West Point by Barack Husayn Obama.
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