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A Disparity Impossible to Ignore

The sad irony of Obama's "big" foreign-policy speech.

The White House has been advancing for days a major foreign-policy speech by the president, intended as a "turning point" in American foreign policy. According to Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, "Our foreign policy is going to look a lot different going forward than it did in the last decade." If only it were so.

President Barack Obama's speech Wednesday, May 28, at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point was not a break with the foreign-policy practices of his administration these past five years. It was instead a discouraging reminder of how glaringly wide the gap is between what the administration claims for its success and the reticent choices it actually makes.

The president speaks of the United States as the world's indispensable nation and cites three examples: "When a typhoon hits the Philippines, or schoolgirls are kidnapped in Nigeria, or masked men occupy a building in Ukraine -- it is America that the world looks to for help." But in two of those crises, the United States has done next to nothing. The United States is by no means the only nation that could do so little. Those girls were kidnapped on April 14; on May 7 the United States sent an "experts team" from the FBI and is finally getting around to special forces and drones. Britain has sent hundreds of troops. It is Ukrainian military forces -- armed with U.S. meals ready to eat -- that forced masked men out of occupied buildings in Donetsk. The Obama administration declined other requests for military assistance. While White House diplomacy has been active on Ukraine, it clearly failed in preventing Moscow's seizure of Crimea or irregular Russian forces' violence in eastern Ukraine. Nor has it galvanized NATO to greater defense efforts or Europe to significant sanctions, much less caused Russia to cower under its powerful global leadership.

The most important metric for gauging the success of U.S. foreign policy has always been the reaction of foreigners to it. On this front, Obama claimed, "America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world." But not since Jimmy Carter's administration have so many foreign governments been anxious about American weakness. May 3's Economist asked: "What Would America Fight For?" The sad answer: We don't know. Allies from Japan to Saudi Arabia to Colombia fear the erosion of American commitment and have begun to realign their choices to hedge against the possibility of abandonment. Why? Because there is no commitment that Obama seems actually committed to.

The speech did not disappoint those hopeful for the president's specialty: the ludicrous straw man to be knocked down valiantly. Specifically, Obama informed us that "a strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naive and unsustainable." He called for a strategy that instead "expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military thin or stir up local resentments," but made no mention of such a strategy beyond "empowering partners." Building other states' capacity to protect themselves and govern their territory is a very good thing, but devilishly difficult to do, as witnessed by the partners the United States empowered in Egypt overthrowing an elected government. Without a much more comprehensive and coordinated effort, the president's $5 billion "counterterrorism partnerships fund" is likely to replicate the success of the School of the Americas -- in training coup leaders.

Obama spent some considerable time in his speech arguing for strengthening international institutions. He mistakenly believes that the critique of his foreign policy is that he is disinclined to act unilaterally and that he defaults to working through institutions wherever possible; the reality is that most Americans actually prefer for the United States to use international law, norms, and institutions where it can. These entities share the burden of what needs doing in the world and create rules the United States agrees to. Few dispute this. The important question comes when those institutions refuse to act or take action contrary to American interests. It is in those circumstances that the Obama administration's policy has foundered. If the United States can only take action with a U.N. Security Council resolution, then the president has thus handed Russia and China a veto in those very areas of his speech that he claims represent an "abiding self-interest" for America. No wonder they go untended, including the war in Syria and "regional aggression that goes unchecked," both of which he curiously uses as examples.

Obama cannot resist soaring, aspirational rhetoric. Among the areas of abiding self-interest are "in making sure our children and our grandchildren grow up in a world where schoolgirls are not kidnapped and where individuals are not slaughtered because of tribe or faith or political belief. I believe that a world of greater freedom and tolerance is not only a moral imperative -- it also helps to keep us safe." If so, that raises the question of why his policies do so little to bring that world about. It must sound embarrassingly hollow in Nigeria, Iraq, and Iran.

No one vetting the speech seemed to notice the deep irony in having this president say, "Tough talk often draws headlines, but war rarely conforms to slogans." Nor did they hesitate to follow it with this slogan: "America should never ask permission to protect our people, our homeland, or our way of life." Edward R. Murrow is doubtless turning in his grave.

So what else was missing? Well, for starters, the speech had no mention of the Trans-Pacific Partnership nor made any pretense that Obama would ask a Senate controlled by his own political party to grant him fast-track authority to negotiate a trade deal that was supposed to be the crowning achievement of "smart power" and that the Peterson Institute for International Economics assesses would boost global GDP by $1.9 trillion. That's evidently no longer part of U.S. "foreign policy" going forward.

And then there are the grandiose claims unenforced by policy: a paean to the Law of the Sea Convention, which the administration has made no effort to ratify; an announcement that he will "make sure America is out front in putting together a global framework to preserve our planet"; a restatement of the need to close the Guantánamo Bay prison; "new restrictions on how America collects and uses intelligence"; a "willingness to act on behalf of human dignity"; a vague promise to "step up our efforts to support Syria's neighbors"; and a promise to be "more transparent about both the basis of our counterterrorism actions and the manner in which they are carried out."

Disgracefully, Obama announced he will be affixing responsibility for that transparency with the U.S. military rather than himself doing the explaining.

At least the president has ceased claiming that he has instituted a "responsible withdrawal" from Iraq. With that country enmeshed in sectarian violence and U.S. sacrifices there squandered, Obama downgraded his own performance to simply having "removed our troops from Iraq." Foreign policy in the Obama administration deserves an even more severe grade. To quote the president's own speech, "That's not leadership; that's retreat. That's not strength; that's weakness. It would be utterly foreign to leaders like Roosevelt and Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy."

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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