Obama's West Point Speech Is Our Problem, Not His

And as much as you might want a different foreign policy, it’s hard to say the president’s is not working.

Presidential speeches rarely persuade. And the president's speech at West Point on Wednesday was more an effort to rationalize a policy than to sell one. After all, it's year six of the Obama administration. I'm pretty sure by now that the chattering classes and the public know what they're getting from Barack Obama on foreign policy.

Add to that more than a few just-say-no Republicans and quite a few journalists, neocons, and liberal interventionists for whom saving Syria is the litmus test to judge Obama's entire foreign policy, and you can bet the West Point oratory won't be remembered as a demonstration of bold, imaginative thinking. Indeed, whatever boldness there was in the president's foreign policy died with its single most consequential act -- the willful and skillful decision to find and kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.

The disappointment with which the speech was received really is surprising only in this regard: The expectation that the transactor could become transformer; that the risk-averse president could somehow become risk-ready; or that a president who has willfully avoided militarizing the U.S. role in Syria would now be ready to. This isn't so much a testament to Obama's failings as it to our outsized expectations.

We're not listening and paying attention to what his priorities have been. Instead we whine and pine for the foreign policy president we want rather than the one we have. And we refuse to accept the possibility that Obama's view of the world -- visionless, minimalist, and focused far more on the middle class than the Middle East -- is well-suited to the times and, in certain respects, quite productive.

Do we need to be reminded that the president has been the Extricator-in-Chief from the beginning? That his strategic objective has been to get America out of the two longest and among the most profitless wars in its history?

Do we need to be told that he is determined to get the United States out of these wars and not get America into new ones? Or that the relationship between means and ends and the relationship between the application of American military power and the end state is open-ended and unclear?

Do we need to focus again on the fact that the one area where the president has indeed been prepared to be risk ready -- counterterrorism -- remains his most important goal?

Do we need to be told that doing diplomacy with Iran to avoid a U.S. war or an Israeli strike is his most important Middle East goal? Or that he believes he may well be positioned to achieve an agreement that will in fact take him off the nuclear hook by the time he leaves office?

Actually, we do.

Forget what the punditocracy thinks. On most of this stuff, Obama is on the verge of accomplishing all these goals. These are his priorities, whether we like it or not. And while the public apparently isn't pleased with his policies, they are actually more displeased with those who would have the country do and risk more abroad.

As presidential speeches go -- barring the line about the president's commitment to America as an indispensable nation (I don't think he really believes it) and the throwaway formulation about American exceptionalism (maybe so, but Obama knows it's not for export) -- it lays out a pretty faithful and accurate vision of how the president sees the world. And let's be clear: It's a world with narrowed options for American power.

This is a president convinced that most of the challenges America faces don't have easy solutions; instead, they have unpredictable outcomes. But many Americans still cling to the notion that their country can do what it wants, when it wants. Clearly, Obama doesn't believe the United States can hit these home runs. So, to use his baseball metaphor, it's singles and doubles.

This isn't the stuff of which foreign-policy legacies and legends are made. But if Guantanamo is closed, if a compelling deal with Iran is made, if a robust and effective counterterrorism policy is maintained that deters and hunts down al Qaeda, if Putin is checked in Eastern Europe, and if Bashar al-Assad is weakened over time, that would be pretty good.

Those who want a different approach will have to wait a bit longer. And, I might add, they'll probably get it. Hegel (not Chuck) would be proud of the dialectic at work. Obama's risk aversion was in large part a response to George W. Bush's headstrong plunge abroad in search of monsters to destroy. Likewise, the next president will almost certainly recalibrate again in favor of a more ready-set-go foreign policy. So be patient those of you who yearn for the good old days when men were men, women were women, and America stood tall in the world. Your time is almost at hand. I just hope you like what comes of it.

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What the President Meant to Say…

The two big things missing from Obama’s speech are the keys to working with foreign partners on massive global problems.

On a gray and drizzly day at West Point, President Barack Obama laid out an incomplete message for the ears of the graduates of the Class of 2014 as they took their place in the Armed Forces of the United States. 

He correctly pointed out the continuing strong capability of the United States as a global power: our economy, an unmatched military, innovation skills, robust demographics, and bedrock values. We are not a declining nation, said Obama, nor should we act like one.

The president also provided a strong plan to drive forward against violent extremists through international partnerships. This will include a $5 billion counterterrorism fund, focused training and mentoring programs for embattled nations, continuing drone strikes, connecting with international institutions, and using alliances like NATO to protect America. Fair enough.

But he left out two vital components of how we can best create security: the power of interagency cooperation, and -- above all -- private-public partnerships. As we approach deeply challenging situations in Afghanistan, Syria, Ukraine, Iran, East Asia, and Yemen, among others, we need not only the international approach laid out by the president, but the immense power that coordinated interagency and private-public efforts can provide, as well.

A few examples:

Afghanistan, where we are withdrawing U.S. and coalition soldiers (too soon, and unfortunately on an announced timeline), will require huge residual efforts by various government agencies:  State in diplomacy; USAID in developing the economy and educational systems; DEA to address the narcotics problem; DOJ to work on governance and corruption; DOA on crop substitution to move farmers away from growing poppies; and the CIA to understand what is happening on the ground. But this kind of collective governmental work, aligned carefully and fully, is lacking.

Similarly, in the end, it will be private-sector efforts that salvage the situation in Afghanistan.  The key to Afghan success will be continued growth to provide jobs for the young, whether in construction, telecommunications, agriculture, or mining of the $1 trillion in minerals -- cobalt, copper, nickel, gold, and lithium. Building government partnerships with private-sector companies who can provide the jobs and technology will be key. The first order of business for the new Afghan president, right after signing the Bilateral Security Agreement, should be issuing a strategic economic plan -- something that will require interagency advice and private sector help.

Syria (where we should be providing more real support to the opposition), could benefit as well from better interagency cooperation, notably between CIA, NSA, and the Pentagon. Likewise, the massive humanitarian and reconstruction work that will follow this brutal civil war will require private-sector engagement to rebuild an economy from scratch when the conflict eventually subsides, hopefully after the defeat of Bashar al-Assad.

In Ukraine (where we need to help build up the Ukrainian military to create real deterrence), there is huge interagency potential demand. Our U.S. interagency organizations need to work not only with international partners like the European Union, but also across the spectrum of activity: rebuilding the economy, rooting out endemic corruption, and providing help and guidance in the hard work of governance. Similarly, the private-sector potential in Ukraine is significant: local firms partnering with U.S. government agencies can help create innovation cells, new technology startups, and educational programs to retrain the workforce.

Similarly, the problem of piracy -- which is still rife on the coasts of Africa and in the Straits of Malacca, among other places -- will not be solved at sea, but ashore. In places like Somalia and Indonesia, interagency work on the part of the U.S. government, working with local partners on education, agriculture, justice, and other alternative-creating efforts will convince young men to turn down a spot in a pirate's skiff. But this effort cannot succeed without working with the private sector (especially global shipping companies) who routinely ply these waters, understand the pirate routes, and adjust their own activities in cooperation with U.S. and international authorities.

West Point is sacred ground to the military, and the president described an international approach that will put more of the burden of military activity on allies and partners. I am glad the president laid out such an international vision. But let's take it even further, fully connecting interagency partners and use the massive engine of private-public cooperation to complete this vision of American leadership in the world.

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