Saturday, May 22, 2010

Obama's Commencement Address at West Point (May 22, 2010)

I have both read and listened to this speech. It's a serious moment for the President of the United States to deliver any commencement address, and especially that of the graduates at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. It's especially interesting to listen to President Obama here, because as I noted many times throughout campaign '08, Obama was the most antiwar candidate of either party. The president's foreign policy has only moderately improved since then. A heavily reluctant warrior, Obama spent much of his first year in office touring the globe apologizing for grievances held among anti-Americans the world over. (Obama even apologized for the "imperfect" Western democracies that liberated Europe in WWII.)

But there is a pull to both the American political system and the world balance of power, and the force of both of these structures are infinitely too much for one president to resist. The world demands leadership. Aside from the United States, no other country possesses the commensurate historical attributes of liberty or the requisite material bases of power. And no other country sees its historical mission as doing right by the world, to improve the quality of life, liberty, and happiness across the globe. And these realities make it that much more difficult to comprehend this administration's abandonment of democracy and human rights in U.S. foreign policy.

CBS News has
the full text of the speech. The president's stressing what theorists call a "neoliberal international order." The emphasis is on American leadership in creating and sustaining multilateral institutions of cooperation in security and economic organization. Watch starting about 17:30 minutes at the video, especially these passages:
The burdens of this century cannot fall on our soldiers alone. It also cannot fall on American shoulders alone. Our adversaries would like to see America sap its strength by overextending our power. And in the past, we've always had the foresight to avoid acting alone. We were part of the most powerful wartime coalition in human history through World War II. We stitched together a community of free nations and institutions to endure and ultimately prevail during a Cold War.

Yes, we are clear-eyed about the shortfalls of our international system. But America has not succeeded by stepping out of the currents of cooperation - we have succeeded by steering those currents in the direction of liberty and justice, so nations thrive by meeting their responsibilities and face consequences when they don't.

So we have to shape an international order that can meet the challenges of our generation. We will be steadfast in strengthening those old alliances that have served us so well, including those who will serve by your side in Afghanistan and around the globe. As influence extends to more countries and capitals, we also have to build new partnerships, and shape stronger international standards and institutions.

This engagement is not an end in itself. The international order we seek is one that can resolve the challenges of our times -- countering violent extremism and insurgency; stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and securing nuclear materials; combating a changing climate and sustaining global growth; helping countries feed themselves and care for their sick; preventing conflict and healing wounds. If we are successful in these tasks, that will lessen conflicts around the world. It will be supportive of our efforts by our military to secure our country.

More than anything else, though, our success will be claimed by who we are as a country. This is more important than ever, given the nature of the challenges that we face. Our campaign to disrupt, dismantle, and to defeat al Qaeda is part of an international effort that is necessary and just.
Notice here the emphasis on American interests in security and cooperation. But in the next few passages, the president minimizes the threat from al Qaeda, for example:
Al Qaeda and its affiliates are small men on the wrong side of history. They lead no nation. They lead no religion. We need not give in to fear every time a terrorist tries to scare us. We should not discard our freedoms because extremists try to exploit them. We cannot succumb to division because others try to drive us apart. We are the United States of America. (Applause.) We are the United States of America, and we have repaired our union, and faced down fascism, and outlasted communism. We've gone through turmoil, we've gone through Civil War, and we have come out stronger - and we will do so once more.
There's a massive contradiction here, and Obama can't have it both ways while remaining intellectually coherent. On the one hand, he minimizes global jihad, which is an ideological thrust perfectly in line with the radical leftists who smear conservatives as scaredy-cats whenever we have an attack (or attempt) from a Nidal Malik Hasan or an Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab or a Faisal Shahzad. Frankly, for the left, there's really no terror threat. These are always "deranged" individuals exploited by the right's "neocon warmongers." And of course, the system always "works," so that the administration's always claims (wrongly) it's got it under control. Further, these same people see no exceptionalism in American power and values. There's no unique historical role for the United States, and hence international norms and institutions should supersede American power and leadership. So note that in his speech the president wants to have his cake and eat it too. Notice how he insists that America has no worries, because "We are the United States of America, and we have repaired our union, and faced down fascism, and outlasted communism," etc. But we have not prevailed in those crises by tucking tail, apologizing for every perceived national flaw, and capitulating to those nations and ideological factions that would destroy us. And this is where this president and this administration fails.

But the president's clever. He hits enough of the right notes
to convince even some conservatives that it was a good speech. Perhaps it was good, yet not great. Compare President Barack Obama's West Point commencement address to President George W. Bush's in 2002. President Bush embodied exceptionalism, even messianism, in stressing the forward role of America in guaranteeing "a peace that favors human liberty":
In defending the peace, we face a threat with no precedent. Enemies in the past needed great armies and great industrial capabilities to endanger the American people and our nation. The attacks of September the 11th required a few hundred thousand dollars in the hands of a few dozen evil and deluded men. All of the chaos and suffering they caused came at much less than the cost of a single tank. The dangers have not passed. This government and the American people are on watch, we are ready, because we know the terrorists have more money and more men and more plans.

The gravest danger to freedom lies at the perilous crossroads of radicalism and technology. When the spread of chemical and biological and nuclear weapons, along with ballistic missile technology --- when that occurs, even weak states and small groups could attain a catastrophic power to strike great nations. Our enemies have declared this very intention, and have been caught seeking these terrible weapons. They want the capability to blackmail us, or to harm us, or to harm our friends --- and we will oppose them with all our power.

For much of the last century, America's defense relied on the Cold War doctrines of deterrence and containment. In some cases, those strategies still apply. But new threats also require new thinking. Deterrence --- the promise of massive retaliation against nations --- means nothing against shadowy terrorist networks with no nation or citizens to defend. Containment is not possible when unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction can deliver those weapons on missiles or secretly provide them to terrorist allies.

We cannot defend America and our friends by hoping for the best. We cannot put our faith in the word of tyrants, who solemnly sign non-proliferation treaties, and then systemically break them. If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long.

Homeland defense and missile defense are part of stronger security, and they're essential priorities for America. Yet the war on terror will not be won on the defensive. We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge. In the world we have entered, the only path to safety is the path of action. And this nation will act ....

Because the war on terror will require resolve and patience, it will also require firm moral purpose. In this way our struggle is similar to the Cold War. Now, as then, our enemies are totalitarians, holding a creed of power with no place for human dignity. Now, as then, they seek to impose a joyless conformity, to control every life and all of life ....

A truly strong nation will permit legal avenues of dissent for all groups that pursue their aspirations without violence. An advancing nation will pursue economic reform, to unleash the great entrepreneurial energy of its people. A thriving nation will respect the rights of women, because no society can prosper while denying opportunity to half its citizens. Mothers and fathers and children across the Islamic world, and all the world, share the same fears and aspirations. In poverty, they struggle. In tyranny, they suffer. And as we saw in Afghanistan, in liberation they celebrate.

America has a greater objective than controlling threats and containing resentment. We will work for a just and peaceful world beyond the war on terror.
More commentary and analysis at Memeorandum. And at NYT, "Obama Offers Strategy Based in Diplomacy," and WaPo, "At West Point, Obama offers new security strategy."

And compare especially my analysis to that of inveterate America-basher
Steve Hynd at Newshoggers.


smitty1e said...

Great post, Donald!