U.S. President Barack Obama used a speech Wednesday to broadly define his approach to foreign policy for the remainder of his presidency, while also attempting to silence critics who say he has ceded America’s position of dominance in the world.
Speaking to graduates of the U.S. Military Academy, Obama described the U.S. position as finding a middle ground between isolationism and interventionism, using military force when appropriate but using other tools, such as sanctions and diplomacy, when a threat doesn’t merit military involvement.
Many reviews criticized this approach.
The Washington Post editorial board
writes: 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. That conclusion can be heard not just from Republican hawks but also from senior officials from Singapore to France and, more quietly, from some leading congressional Democrats. As he has so often in his political career, Mr. Obama has elected to respond to the critical consensus not by adjusting policy but rather by delivering a big speech.
Elliott Abrams of the Washington Post
said the policy that Obama outlined on Wednesday is likely of little comfort to U.S. allies and to the cause of freedom in the world.
At bottom, the speech was a labored defense of a foreign policy that has come under attack from left and right recently for being weak. Mr. Obama’s response was to say that the refusals to lead here or act there are all in the plan, and the refusals are called “multilateralism,” and anyway the alternative is constant invasions and wars and Iraqs and Afghanistans. Mr. Obama said early in the speech that “Russia’s aggression toward former Soviet states unnerves capitals in Europe, while China’s economic rise and military reach worry its neighbors.” Their nerves won’t be any better after listening to what he said at West Point.
The New York Times
wrote that Obama’s speech was largely uninspiring and likely did little to quiet his critics.
In his speech, Mr. Obama tried to push back against critics who say he has ceded America’s post-World War II dominance. The question, as he correctly put it, is “not whether America will lead but how we will lead” and he reasserted that “isolationism is not an option.” Mr. Obama was right when he suggested there would be no serious negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program without his approach to American leadership.
But he provided little new insight into how he plans to lead in the next two years, and many still doubt that he fully appreciates the leverage the United States has even in a changing world. Falling back on hackneyed phrases like America is the “indispensable nation” told us little.
In the Los Angeles Times
, Doyle McManus criticized Obama for taking aim at a battalion of straw men.
“U.S. military action cannot be the only, or even primary, component of our leadership in every instance,” he said.
But no one has argued that military action should come first — not even George W. Bush, who took the nation to war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“A strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naive and unsustainable,” Obama said, knocking down another argument nobody has made.
Or, as The Christian Science Monitor
summed it up in its review of the speech:
Other than the new counterterrorism partnership fund, the speech was devoid of initiatives or proposals and instead seemed aimed at refuting mounting criticism both domestically and among some worried international partners that his foreign policy is weak and rudderless.
Abroad, critics were vocal as well.
An editorial in The Guardian
finds fault mainly with Obama’s handling of Syria.
"Mr. Obama is striving to steer a middle course between the isolationists and interventionists and the outcome is inevitably something of a fudge. … The greatest failure so far of Mr. Obama's foreign policy lies in Syria. Humanitarian interventions aimed at preventing mass atrocities are among the toughest foreign policy calls a leader has to make. … The opportunity to curb Bashar al-Assad's sense of impunity was arguably missed last August as Mr. Obama's 'red line' was crossed without response.”
The Daily Telegraph
said the speech was disappointing in that it didn’t break new ground.
"Anyone expecting the birth of an 'Obama Doctrine' will have been disappointed. Far from marking a departure, the president's speech yesterday fell squarely within the tradition of American foreign policy since 1945. … The argument that America should only wage war in concert with allies and a skilful combination of money expertise and diplomacy can often solve problems more effectively than military action would have found favor with almost every occupant of the White House since 1945."
In Turkey’s pro-government Star
, Nasuhi Gungor wrote that Obama’s words “give the impression that the U.S. is handing the management of certain international issues to Russia.”
And, Gungor wrote, Obama’s “ 'There is not a military solution in Syria' approach will have influences on Turkey's policy toward Syria as well. Turkey's decision to keep the doors open to negotiations with Russia on the Syrian issue will have a greater importance in the future. Turkey is one of the few countries who will play a balancing role in the war of power."
noticed the lack of any mention
of the Israeli-Palenstinian peace process:
To say that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was conspicuously absent from U.S. President Barack Obama’s speech at West Point on Wednesday is an understatement. Administration officials tried to downplay the significance of the omission, but the facts speak for themselves: Obama devoted almost 5000 words to outlining America’s foreign policy in the coming years, none of them touching on what was described until recently as one of its primary, strategic objectives. And the Palestinians? Nothing. Gurnischt. Not a peep.
Yet not everyone found fault with Obama's address on U.S. foreign policy.
Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst, wrote
that Obama's speech can be summarized as limiting the use of American power to defending the nation's core interests and being smart enough to avoid the temptation to use such power when it embroils the country in costly mistakes such as the decision to invade Iraq.
The President's answer is the foreign policy equivalent of medicine's Hippocratic oath "first do no harm." Without directly saying so, it amounts to a cautious but firm repudiation of the decisions made by presidents such as George W. Bush and Lyndon Johnson, who ordered massive commitments of American military power against perceived enemies. A foreign policy of judicious restraint that doesn't sacrifice core American interests is not the sort of foreign policy that lends itself well to emotional rhetoric. But that's exactly Obama's point; it is American hubris and overreach since World War II in wars such as Vietnam and Iraq that cost the nation dearly in blood and treasure, while doing little to protect America's core interests.
David Ignatius of the Washington Post
wrote, I applaud Obama for trying to craft a foreign policy for the next decade that avoids the mistakes of the past decade.
However, he said Obama’s speech shows that he has missed some lessons of his presidency:
Obama wisely said he wants “to see the world as it is, with all its danger and uncertainty. ... But Obama ignored the “follow-through” part of U.S. power: Surely he can see that al-Qaeda regained control of Fallujah this year in part because America walked away from Iraq in 2010. Surely the president recognizes that terrorism has a deadly new face in Syria in part because he turned down a mid-2012 recommendation to train moderate opposition forces to counter the extremists. And surely he understands that Afghanistan could become a haven once more for al-Qaeda.
The French Daily LeMonde
praised the tone of Obama's speech but questioned his “professorial” and “realist” approach to foreign policy.
Obama’s critics accuse him “of passiveness, of a reluctance to use force, in other words of a wait-and-see attitude that they claim helps the Chinese and the Russians to assert themselves at America's expense.
True, there is something professorial about Mr. Obama, and that is a good thing. He learns his lessons from past experiences. Those of a war in Iraq that caused a shockwave for which the Near East is still paying the price. Those of a war in Afghanistan that was neither won nor lost. And the lessons of an intervention in Libya whose consequences are ambiguous, to say the least.
“Mr. Obama gives the impression of shunning difficulties rather than confronting them. This perception is perhaps unfair. But in foreign policy style is as important as action."
Joe Klein wrote for Time
: Obama's West Point Speech Was Not Exciting.
And he will be criticized for that. There was nothing “new” in his address to the West Point graduates, some will say. Others - neo-conservatives and blood curmudgeons like John McCain - will say that it was a ratification of the President’s policy of weakness and retreat. And while those of us who generally agree with the President on foreign policy might have hoped for some pyrotechnics, a more passionate defense of his policy, the substance of the speech was solid, just as the net substance of his actions overseas have been.
Victor Beattie contributed to this report from Washington.