President Barack Obama’s speech at West Point on Saturday may be among the most important he has yet made during his sixteen month old presidency. The speech intimates a number of the key themes likely to appear in the National Security Strategy report to be issued this next week.
As one senior official on his national security team recently said to me, “we are moving past a time when the foreign policy agenda was set by a previous President and into a time when the roster of things to do are chosen and prioritized by this President.”
In his speech, President Obama said that this is a time for “national renewal” and “global leadership”. The entire tone of his speech was confident but humble – seemingly recognizing the vital need for the US to return to its role as a benign, constructive force in global affairs. He seemed to confess that for America to return to a position of global credibility that it needed to work constructively with other powers, not think that power or significant accomplishments can be made independent of other of the world’s key stakeholders.
Obama said that this time in history was on of those “moments of change”, a time of discontinuity in global affairs when America’s global social contract needed to be re-forged. He said that while this time of globalization and individual empowerment created opportunities, we also were seeing the emergence of new powers and the rise of “ancient hatreds and new dangers”.
In other words, the United States no longer has the comfort of a predictable global equilibrium in which what the nation says and does automatically produces the results America wants. America’s place in the world – and its power – need to be re-earned, its mystique as a country with dynamic military, economic, moral and institutional characteristics less constrained than other nations recaptured.
The President made a compelling call for significant reinvestment in the core strengths of the country – in the sources of American innovation, in education, R&D, next generation energy projects, and the like. He said that there is no way that the US can presume global leadership when its home front is deteriorating and in poor shape.
While he did not say so bluntly, Obama is finally leveling with the American public that he inherited national security and domestic portfolios from the G.W. Bush administration that were manifestations of a precipitous collapse in American power.
Obama is declaring his intention to turn these negative trends around – and without simply, vapidly asserting that America is powerful and capable of great feats, he is admitting that it will take tough work, prioritization, and creativity.
I was very impressed with this speech, though there were key elements of it that I think were wrong-headed though certainly not fatal.
On the downside, this is the second major national security address that the President has given at West Point, the first being his articulation of a revised strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan in September 2009.
President Obama shoulders the burden of being a war-time President from the Democratic Party. Americans traditionally doubt Democrats to deploy power and to make the hard decisions on military deployments – and thus to compensate, I feel that the President and the entire contemporary Democratic Party leadership tend to over compensate on this issue. They want to speak before soldiers, show they are supportive of the troops, and unveil their national security plans with the military as a backdrop to show that they are tough.
But the time has come for the President to give the kind of speech he gave this weekend at the Oval office, or at a high school, or at a steel plant, or an innovative renewable energy firm because it is not just “hard power” that is in play. If the US is making commitments to fight in other nations at a cost of more than $160 billion a year and the President is saying that the nation needs more competitive schools and technology and workforce, then all of the country – not just those in the military – should feel the responsibility, debate the costs, and be part of the equation.
My second critique is that as the President recognized the wide diversity of talent in the student soldiers sitting before him at their commencement, noting in particular that the two top cadets were women, he should have used this speech – even with a minor nod – to recognize the sacrifice and commitment to the country’s safety and security of gay men and women who cannot publicly acknowledge who they are. There are many soldiers in uniform today, and many gay men and lesbians there in the West Point graduating class, who cannot say “I am wearing a uniform. I am fighting for my country. I am gay, and I want to salute my President.”
President Obama, who has acknowledged gays and lesbians in the military services when speaking before gay rights groups needs to begin acknowledging them when the entire nation and world are listening.
And lastly, the President’s strategy must be more than about Afghanistan. Commending allies that support US efforts in Afghanistan is not necessarily the makings of a new global commons.
The single biggest error of this otherwise excellent speech was linking the ups and downs of Afghanistan to the much more significant revitalization of America’s domestic innovation base and to the vital need to build-in developing powers like Brazil, Turkey, China, Russia, South Africa, Indonesia, and India into the next architecture of global power.
Afghanistan today looks like a sink hole for American power, not a multiplier. In contrast, the nuclear deal making the Obama administration has done has begun to reverse a ‘systemic doubt’ other nations hold about America’s ability to achieve any of the goals it sets out to do.
It would be great if Afghanistan began to move in the right direction, either through progress in reconciliation and reintegration of key parts of the Taliban into some form of acceptable reconstructed political order. It would be even better if the US got Israel and Palestine and regional stakeholders off the narcotic of peace talk paralysis and on to a credible two state track.
Moving the Middle East into a place where Israel might be able to talk over security interests with scores of new Arab states with which it normalized relations – and decreasing America’s military overextension in Afghanistan are two fundamental factors that could and probably would alter the calculations Iran’s leadership is making today about American weakness.
Thus, the President needs to make his National Security Strategy about more than Afghanistan. Afghanistan may ultimately be a failure – but that does not mean that his Presidency is a bust or his chances for resurrecting a new global social contract that restores American leverage in a world of new and old power stakeholders should end.
All in all, the President’s remarks – which I hope are reflected in the National Security Strategy – imply a commitment to creative reinvigoration of America’s national capabilities and purposes.
If Obama follows this up with actions – for instance diverting a large portion of the $100 billion per year going to support a questionable military challenge in Afghanistan and rather divert those funds into a U.S.-led international R&D effort on mass scale renewable energy technologies, or other key, job-creating national infrastructure investment, then President Obama’s legacy on both the domestic and the international front could be truly great.
— Steve Clemons