President Obama’s West Point Commencement Speech

  • photo courtesy of U.S. Army
    May 29, 2014

    Q1: Why did President Obama give the speech?

    A1: The list of negative characterizations of the Obama administration's foreign policy – incompetent, weak, feeble, dithering, feckless, passive, etc. – was growing rapidly and becoming more dismissive. In his 28 April 2014 press conference with Philippine President Aquino, President Obama poured fuel on the fire as he tried to defend his foreign policy, particularly with respect to the use of military force, against its critics.  His "small ball" defense of his foreign policy track record -- "But it avoids errors. You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we might be able to hit a home run.  But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnerships with folks around the world" – reminded observers of the "leading from behind" characterization during the first term.  In a lengthy 4 May 2014 editorial, The New York Times concluded that "Mr. Obama's record on foreign policy is not as bad as his critics say.  It's just not good enough." You know it's bad when your friends start piling on. The Obama team had to get another narrative out there.

    Q2:    What do you think the President's biggest failure has been?

    A2: The failure to enforce his red line against Syrian use of chemical weapons (CW). The President made this his red line on 20 August 2012 when he said "We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us [is if] we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving or being utilized." In April 2013, the United Kingdom and France told the UN that Syria had engaged in several small-scale CW attacks.  Two months later, a third-tier White House official said that in response to "credible evidence" of Syrian CW use, the United States would increase non-lethal assistance and begin "direct support" to the opposition's military wing. On 25 August 2013, a Syrian CW attack killed 1,400 people, including almost 400 children. In my view, this was a clear failure of U.S. deterrence, one that undermines U.S. credibility and perceptions of U.S. resolve around the globe.

    It gets worse. On 10 September 2013, President Obama told the American people that it was his judgment as their commander in chief that the United States should "respond to the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike." But he also said that as the "President of the world's oldest constitutional democracy," he "would take the debate to Congress." When it quickly became clear that Congress would not support the President, the Obama administration took up Russian President Putin's offer to broker a deal to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons. Although President Obama told the United Nations on 16 September 2013 that the international community must enforce the "ban against the use of chemical weapons," the President noted in his press conference in the Philippines that critics said that he "should have taken a strike at Syria to get chemical weapons out of Syria," but that he was doing that "without having initiated a strike." Not only is President Obama forgetting that his red line was about CW use, he's also ignoring credible reports that the Assad regime is using chlorine gas in its "barrel bomb" attacks in the suburbs of Damascus. Why? The Washington Post reported on 1 May 2014 that a "senior U.S. official" told them that "There's reluctance to call attention to it because there's not much we can do about it. You can't ask a country to get rid of all of its chlorine." Perhaps not, but you can enforce the ban against using them, as the President said he would in September 2013. Setting aside for the moment the loss of U.S. credibility, the United States is still failing to deter Syrian use of chemical weapons against its own people.          

    Q3:  Is there anything new or different in this speech?

    A3:  The themes – such as "America must always lead on the world stage"; "America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world" and "Our military has no peer. The odds of a direct threat against us by any nation are low, and do not come close to the dangers we faced during the Cold War." – were familiar, but the statements were made emphatically and with conviction. The President amplified his remarks on 23 May 2013 at the National Defense University when he outlined how the campaign against terrorism was shifting from its focus on the central leadership of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan to its affiliates in the greater Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa.  He did add one new wrinkle, a proposed $5 billion Counterterrorism Partnership Fund for building capacity in local partners (e.g., the moderate opposition in Syria) and supporting the efforts of others (e.g., the French in Mali).

    A dominant theme was that U.S. global leadership does not depend on using military force: "But U.S. military action cannot be the only – or even primary – component of our leadership in every instance.  Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail."  President Obama then reviewed several instances of effective foreign policy – from isolating and imposing costs on Russia for its actions against Ukraine to reform in Burma – that were accomplished "without having fired a shot." This is true, of course, but it echoes the defensiveness of his April 2014 press conference in the Philippines. No one has advocated military action against Russia for seizing Crimea, but NATO could have done much more militarily in response to Russia's actions than sending (via commercial transport) 150 American paratroopers to Poland and three Baltic states.

    Q4:  Is there anything that President Obama should have done in this speech?

    A4: As I argued in my response to Q2, I think President Obama's failure to enforce his red line against the use of chemical weapons has damaged U.S. credibility and global perceptions of U.S. resolve. It has also failed to deter the Assad regime from using chemical weapons, even though chlorine itself is not on the banned list of chemicals. I think you rebuild credibility one red line at a time. President Obama should have returned to his rhetoric of his September 2013 speech to the UN, acknowledged (as the French foreign minister recently pointed out) he made a mistake, and re-drawn his red line on using CW. And this time, be ready to enforce it if Assad is not deterred.

    Clark Murdock is senior adviser and director of the Defense and National Security Group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C.

    Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Clark A. Murdock