THE BLOG
05/30/2014 05:25 pm ET Updated Jul 30, 2014

Obama's Vacuous West Point Foreign Policy Speech

Spencer Platt via Getty Images

In his May 28 West Point speech on foreign policy President Obama took a swipe at "so-called realists." But the acolytes of this particular school of thought will by and large be satisfied with his manifesto. The most scathing attacks on Obama's foreign policy have come from neo-conservatives such as Robert Kagan. They are the ones who will pounce on the Mr. Obama's latest address, and indeed have already done so.

The West Point lecture was classic Obama: the president was calm and reasonable. And he took an in-between Goldilocks stance designed to differentiate him from the extremes. The latter he characterized simplistically to supplement the rhetorical force, if not the persuasiveness, of his case.

For instance, no serious foreign policy strategist believes that every international problem is a nail that must be pounded using the hammer of American military power. Yet Mr. Obama would have us believe that many do hold such a view and that it is worth rebutting. In fact, Obama's is a straw man argument. The number of experts or leaders who have demanded military American intervention in Syria can be counted on the fingers of one hand, if that.

The same holds for those who have suggested going to war with Russia to defend Ukraine.

Likewise, no one with any appreciable influence on American foreign policy is calling for isolationism defined as withdrawal from the world -- not Rand Paul, not the far left. Demands for restraint, selectivity, and a judicious weighing of costs, means, and ends there certainly have been -- and appropriately so. But these are not pleas for pulling up the drawbridge so as to keep the world at bay.

What's more, by invoking themes that all American presidents seem to find irresistible -- America as the "indispensible" nation, the guardian of global equilibrium, the leader everyone rallies around, the source of all that is good in the world -- Obama's speech was itself expansive, its theme of prudence notwithstanding. But then one should allow any president leeway to serve up feel-good phrases.

What's more problematic about the president speech is that it was devoid of any systematic explanation -- notwithstanding that he had close to an hour -- of what exactly American interests are in the 21st century and how they ought to be pursued. Obama spoke of defending the homeland and the American way of life (who could disagree with that?) and waxed eloquently about the virtues of democracy. But he offered no compelling interpretation of what we should be doing in the world, how, where, why, for how long, and at what cost.

Mr. Obama reassured Americans that he would defend our way of life; but we were not asked to make any sacrifices along the way. If we go to war should we not be required to pay for it with tax increases rather than, as we have been wont to do, borrowing to cover the costs and adding to our budget deficits?

If some interests and values are so important that American troops must be sent to die in their behalf, should not Americans demonstrate their patriotism and willingness to sacrifice by at least having serious a discussion about reinstituting the draft or requiring non-military national service as an alternative? Or will we be called upon do to no more than display "Support Our Troops" bumper stickers and sport lapels pin bearing the flag?

If climate change is so serious a problem -- and the president has made it clear that he believes it -- shouldn't we at least have a serious energy policy about how to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels?

The president's speech contained nothing of value on these issues.

The president argued with conviction that the military campaigns in Iraq and (though he didn't say so explicitly) Vietnam are reminders of how horrific war can be and of the limitations of raw force as an instrument of statecraft. He noted, in particular, the limits of military power for thwarting terrorism and called for a foreign policy based is based on transparency and legitimacy and thus wins international respect and support and collaboration.

Yet there was not one word about his favorite weapon in the war against terrorism: drone strikes. Mr. Obama has used drone attacks with minimal transparency and accountability and far more extensively than President George W. Bush did. Yet this choice is hard to reconcile with the principles of Just War Theory, which Mr. Obama has invoked frequently at least since his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. If ever there were a hammer Mr. Obama likes to use -- because it's cheap, gives him enormous freedom of action, and ensures that there are no American casualties -- it's drones.

Yet in the places in which drones have been employed as weapons, they continue to take civilian lives and increase hatred toward the United States. (The qualifier that they kill and maim far fewer non-combatants than other forms of military power may be true, but it offers cold comfort to the families of innocent victims.)

Drone strikes have failed to prevent terrorist cells from recruiting members and regenerating; and in places such as Pakistan, they have made the problem worse, not better. There and in Somalia and Yemen they have made fragile societies still more fragile. Besides, focusing on civilian casualties obscures the many other ways -- and they have been documented thoroughly -- in which drones affect the dirt-poor communities against which they are used with abandon.

Will drone strikes nevertheless continue to be used at the existing pace? And what about the issues of legitimacy and accountability that the president stressed so stirringly at West Point: how do they apply to drone strikes? Mr. Obama did not say.

The president spoke of the importance of defending America's allies in Europe and Asia. What he did not explain, however, is why these partners still spend far less for their defense as a proportion of their Gross National Product (GDP) than the United States does, even though they have long since recovered from the ravages of World War II and are wealthy countries that compete effectively with the United States in international markets.

America continues to act as a nanny state. Few non-US NATO members spend more than 1 percent of their GDP on defense, and Japan almost never has since 1945. South Korea is a global economic power with a GDP that's 25 times the size of North Korea and ranks 15th in the world.

Yet the wisdom of the American foreign policy establishment is that it can't defend itself against North Korea unless thousands of American troops are deployed on its territory--indefinitely. Mr. Obama apparently agrees with this curious proposition that has long been sacrosanct within the establishment: anyone who questions it is naive or... or is an isolationist.

Similarly, the commonplace view is that Japan has two but choices: staying with military minimalism or lurching toward militarism -- this even as its neighborhood is becoming more dangerous. This is not merely a false dichotomy; it's a lazy caricature. Yet the president peddled the same pabulum at West Point: he said nothing of substance on what the US-Japan alliance should like in the 21st century. Apparently we are still in the 20th. Tokyo will be delighted to hear this.

Until recently, the United States had been vague about whether the US-Japan alliance covered the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which are controlled by Japan but also claimed by (an increasingly powerful and assertive) China. But during his recent trip to Japan the president stated that they were -- and this at a time when Japan and China are engaged in an escalating verbal war and shows of force over this tiny archipelago. If the Chinese up the ante and resort to force to stake their claim, has the United States in effect committed itself to going to war with China to defend Japan's claim?

What if this extravagant American guarantee makes Japan less amenable to diplomacy and more inclined to risk-taking? What if it induces China to test America's resolve rather to act with restraint? Here's an instance where the general principle of defending allies that the president embraced at West Point lacked important, indeed essential, specifics -- and it's the only example I have space to discuss here.

The president will doubtless be excoriated from the right for presenting a foreign policy that's wimpy and defeatist and signals American retreat and thus makes the world more dangerous and America less secure. Stay tuned for that standard critique.

The more serious problem is that the president failed to outline a coherent foreign policy strategy at West Point. Instead, he offered sweeping generalities that bypassed numerous specifics and took no account of America's changing circumstances at home and abroad or of the ways in which the world has changed. In this sense, what he said was utterly banal.