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Obama’s Foreign Policy Speech Didn’t Alert Foes and Didn’t Reassure Allies

by Shmuel Rosner

May 29, 2014 | 3:26 am

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the commencement ceremony at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, May 28, 2014. Photo: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

I am joining the chorus of critics of President Obama’s foreign policy speech. If you think Obama’s was a great speech, you probably won’t find this post very appealing. I am joining those who, in the words of Elliott Abrams, believe that “the president caricatures the views of his critics” rather than seriously debating them. You can easily see it throughout the speech. No one proposed “a strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks”, and hence there is nothing special in Obama’s insistence on not following such a route. Obama’s speech was weak. It lacked new ideas, but that’s not the problem. New ideas are often overrated. The problem is that the old ideas included in the speech were not at all reassuring. “Calling someone a partner doesn't make them one -- nor does it make them a useful ally”, commented David Rothkopf. “And one of the big lessons of the crises of the Obama years has been that Washington has either not had good partners or has not been able to motivate the good partners it does have to do enough to help achieve long-term goals”.

Slate’s Fred Kaplan found Obama’s message useful. I’m still not sure why. “The president’s main point was to emphasize that not every problem has a military solution; that the proper measure of strength and leadership is not merely the eagerness to deploy military power; that, in fact, America’s costliest mistakes have stemmed not from restraint but from rushing to armed adventures”. So that’s the big news? Not every problem has a military solution? Would we cheer a speech in which a leader said that not every problem has a diplomatic solution (Ask John Kerry)?

Five years into Obama’s presidency, words don’t count as much as deeds – we hear the president’s talk, but we’ve also seen him walk. If he is all for freedom for the Egyptians, it is not clear why he has acted the way he has since the beginning of the demonstrations against Mubarak. If his call for freedom is no more than lip service to something he doesn’t truly believe in, then we shouldn’t believe it either. Obama was right to say that “America must always lead on the world stage. If we don’t, no one else will”. Yet the world has seen in recent years a leader that is not really keen on leading the world. So either Obama isn’t telling us what he really wants – or, if he is, his actions hardly match his rhetoric.

A couple of notes on the speech as viewed from Israel:

Israel and Palestine were not mentioned. Correction: Israel was mentioned but only as it relates to other topics (Iran and Egypt); the Palestinians were not mentioned at all. This is curious: just a very short time ago, the Israeli-Palestinian process was considered a top priority. Back in September, the president talked about the Middle East peace process as one of two foreign policy priorities. He had three years in office, and two great things to deal with. Now – poof (again, ask Kerry) – a priority is gone. Of course, the idea that this was a top priority was ridiculous in the first place. But comparing the two speeches, the one in September and the other in late May, can give you a sense of the level of seriousness of such speeches by Obama. And it gives you a sense of the level of seriousness you want to attribute to statements such as “a critical focus of this effort will be the ongoing crisis in Syria”.

Turning to Iran, there was little the speech offered. This is understandable as negotiations with Iran are at a delicate moment and the President would be wise not to ruin it by making grandiose statements. Then again, looking at what he had to say, America’s allies in the Middle East are just as nervous today about Iran as they were yesterday. And Iran probably isn’t more inclined to sign a deal following the speech. If a speech has no effect on allies and foes – why even give it?

To me, that is the real issue: why did Obama feel the need to give such a speech, and what was the objective he wanted to achieve? Was it an attempt to silence his critics? I think this speech gave them more fodder to chew on – just read the Washington Post’s editorial: “This binding of U.S. power places Mr. Obama at odds with every U.S. president since World War II. In effect, he ruled out interventions to stop genocide or reverse aggression absent a direct threat to the U.S. homeland or a multilateral initiative”.

And as I’ve already said, this speech will not make a foe shudder and will not make an ally calmer. Its only purpose, it seems, is to rally the troops at home – that is, to reassure Obama supporters and give them the needed talking points with which to ward off criticism. Obama, again, is not leading the world, and is not leading the American public. He is riding a wave of reluctant public opinion that gives him a license to avoid global leadership – and then wraps it in a speech that is supposed to make it look like strategy.

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