Not All that Different: George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama at West Point
Matt Jacobs is a doctoral candidate at Ohio University specializing in U.S. foreign relations and modern international history.
President Barack Obama touches the Marshall Plaque at Michie Stadium upon arrival for the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Throughout the latter half of the 20th century U.S presidents have routinely spoken out on issues of war and peace at the United States Military Academy at West Point. One of Bill Clinton’s earliest presidential speeches on foreign policy occurred there while George W. Bush used that setting to announce elements of the Bush Doctrine.
Recently, that tradition continued as President Barack Obama gave a commencement address focused on the United States’ role in the world. His speech received harsh criticism and was labeled as “defensive.” Conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer described it as “pointless.” Editorial Boards at the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post all lambasted the president’s words. The Post wrote that “President Obama has retrenched U.S. global engagement in a way that has shaken the confidence of many U.S. allies and encouraged some adversaries.” Yet, such denouncements are unwarranted as the address was not so out of line with previous views regarding the proper use of American power. In fact, Obama’s speech held striking similarities to a 1993 address by President George H.W. Bush at the same institution.
Speaking only days away from the end of his presidency many viewed the talk as a farewell address. Bush 41 focused on international relations and declared that “we need not respond by ourselves to each and every outrage of violence. The fact that America can act does not mean that it must. A nation's sense of idealism need not be at odds with its interests, nor does principle displace prudence.”
Addressing cadets shortly after the end of the Cold War and the successful U.S. intervention in the Persian Gulf, Bush acknowledged the necessary role of international organizations, “the United States can and should lead, but we will want to act in concert, where possible involving the United Nations or other multinational grouping.” The New York Times reported that H.W. Bush had “a message of caution, dwelling on the importance of prudence and long deliberation in deciding where and when to use military force.”
Last week when President Barack Obama took to the podium at West Point he delivered an address very much in tune with Bush’s 1993 speech. The president spoke of the need for multilateral action and argued that military power is not always the answer, “just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail." Though he did reiterate a belief in the need for American global leadership and that the United States reserved the right to act unilaterally, Obama’s remarks echoed the conviction that not all global issues require a U.S. response.
In essence, the president’s speech called for U.S. leaders to think deeply and thoroughly debate possible consequences before making decisions regarding international dilemmas. While providing weapons to rebels in Syria or becoming more involved in Ukraine’s political crisis may appear to some as easy decisions, those judgments ultimately have the potential to bring about unforeseen consequences and lead the United States down paths that both leaders in Washington and the American people are not ready to embark on.
While there is nothing wrong with criticizing a president’s approach to the world, a little historical context is never a bad thing. Ultimately, President Obama’s commencement address should not be viewed as a retrenchment of U.S. foreign policy, but as an acceptance of reality. After years of war, thousands of deaths, and trillions of dollars spent, a more narrow definition of U.S. core interests is necessary. Much in the same vein as George H. W. Bush, President Obama’s words were certainly not a call to arms or an idealistic pronouncement on the capacity of the United States to remake the world, but maybe his speech was just what the nation needed to hear.
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