President Obama gave an intellectually vigorous response to his foreign policy critics today, in a commencement speech at West Point:
He made clear that the US would use military force, if necessary unilaterally, to defend its core interests. But at the same time he made it clear that crises that do not directly threaten the US do not merit the same response. Then, he suggests, nonmilitary efforts and multilateral military action are more appropriate and more effective.
Terrorism he identifies as the current top priority threat. But he wants to deploy the US military less and partner more with the countries where terrorists find haven. The now diffuse threat requires a more networked response, with other countries’ security forces taking the lead, as is soon to happen in Afghanistan. He wants $5 billion for training and equipping others. In Syria, he pledged to step up support to the neighbors and to the Syrian opposition, with the objective of reaching a political solution. In undertaking direct strikes against terrorists, the President cites the need for a continuing imminent threat and near certainty of no civilian casualties, so as not to create more enemies than we eliminate. He pledges to explain what we do publicly, asking the military to take the lead.
The second priority the President cites is protection of the international order, including multilateral international institutions. World opinion and international institutions blocked a Russian invasion of Ukraine and gave the country a chance to elect a new president, with America “firing a shot.” Sanctions on Iran, and the ongoing nuclear negotiations, are another example. We hope to achieve something better than what could have been achieved using force. These are signs of American strength and leadership, not weakness or hesistancy. So too is strengthening the forces of countries that contribute to international peacekeeping.
Cybersecurity, the South China Sea and climate change require a multinational approach. The President said we need to lead by example, subjecting ourselves to the same rules that apply to everyone else, including the still unratified Law of the Sea Convention. America is made exceptional by affirming international law and its own values, not by flouting it. This means closing Guantanamo and putting rules in place to regulate intelligence collection.
American leadership also requires acting in favor of human dignity. This means support for democracy, open economies and human rights, even where security interests come first, as in Egypt. Everyone’s best example these days is Burma (despite the many equivocal aspects of its still ongoing transition). But the President also squeezed in helping with electricity in Africa and education in Nigeria. “Human dignity” is a category that encompasses a lot of things.
It wasn’t a particularly stirring speech, but it was a logical one. I still wish he would do more about Syria, which threatens to collapse the neighboring states and provide haven to international terrorists. But he is into triage, not retreat, trying to limit American commitments and conserve America’s strength for whatever serious threats lie ahead. That’s what any smart president would want to do.