MAY 30 — Like any politician’s speech, President Barack Obama’s address Wednesday to the graduating class at West Point on his foreign policy as he intends it for the rest of his term has to be read for timing as well as content.
Obama still has a long two-and-a-half years remaining until he leaves the White House. In spite of the consistent recalcitrance he encounters in Congress, and whatever the outcome of this year’s midterm congressional elections, his speech comes at a time when, with no longer any elections to face, he is free to use his executive authority to do whatever the traffic will bear.
Obama has quite a lot of leeway in terms of policy, particularly foreign policy where the American president always has more freedom to act than he does when trying to fix strictly national problems. In that sense, the West Point speech showed decidedly less vigor, imagination and originality than one might have expected of the Obama who campaigned on “Change you can believe in.”
Taken as it must be in the context of his overall foreign policy, Obama announced Tuesday that he was prolonging a significant presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan from the end of 2014, still the end point set by the Afghans pending the results of the second round of their presidential elections, to 2016.
By the end of that year, Obama will be finishing his second term as president, enabling him thus to pass the buck to the next American president on the final decision on the full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan that most Americans still clearly want after 13 years of war there.
The speech itself was a fair-to-middling attempt to somehow place the United States somewhere between the exceptional, necessary leader in world affairs that it is, whether it wants to be or not, and a still large and powerful country that attempts to lead the world through collective relationships with the rest of the world, through NATO, through cooperation with Asian and other Pacific nations and through the United Nations and other international organizations.
That has not worked awfully well, if one looks, for example, at the results in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. One outcome has been that the Europeans, who are still generally faithful to U.S. leadership because of America’s military might, the fact that they might need us again if Russia under Vladimir V. Putin’s leadership becomes too aggressive or just through old gratitude at America’s having saved their bacon in World War I and II, showed themselves in the recent European parliament elections to be turning more isolationist in their national policies.
Obama’s attempt to set out his foreign policy for the next few years is useful. The speech and his decision on extending the Afghanistan War gives Americans something to chew on, but it was not something that would work on a banner — or even on a bumper sticker — as a rallying cry for a United States going forward in the world. Perhaps the worst part is that Americans know he can do better.