President Obama spoke at the commencement ceremony for the U.S. Military Academy West Point in New York Wednesday morning, during which he kicked sand in the face of the Republican idea that America is in decline due to Obama’s foreign policy.
Obama said, “In fact, by most measures, America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world. Those who argue otherwise — who suggest that America is in decline, or has seen its global leadership slip away — are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics.”
The President elaborated on why America is not in decline due to Obama’s foreign policy making us weak, as Republicans claim it is:
Think about it. 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.
Meanwhile, our economy remains the most dynamic on Earth; our businesses the most innovative. Each year, we grow more energy independent. From Europe to Asia, we are the hub of alliances unrivaled in the history of nations. America continues to attract striving immigrants. The values of our founding inspire leaders in parliaments and new movements in public squares around the globe. And 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. So the United States is and remains the one indispensable nation. That has been true for the century passed and it will be true for the century to come.
The President reflected upon those who sacrificed so much for our freedom and what we’ve accomplished. The graduating crowd cheered when the President said, “Al Qaeda’s leadership on the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been decimated, and Osama bin Laden is no more.”
The President detailed how the world is changing and the new dangers we face as a result. He told the graduates that it will be their generation’s task to respond to this new world. He took this opportunity to discuss the eternal tug between interventionism and passivism.
President Obama’s foreign policy differs extensively from the Republican version of foreign policy. Obama approaches problems on many fronts, saving boots on the ground and military action for the last resort. This is hardly a “decline”, but then it’s hard to decline from the Bush Doctrine.
The question is how do we engage in counter-terrorism. What is most effective, what is most sustainable, what is most in line with our values. How much is enough, what is too much.
The President called out the failure of the Bush Doctrine indirectly by pointing out, “Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint, but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences — without building international support and legitimacy for our action; without leveling with the American people about the sacrifices required.”
To this end, the Obama foreign policy drives hard core war hawks nuts and passivists are equally unhappy. The Obama administration argues that we need to be engaged due to the changing landscape of terrorism, but that does not necessarily mean military action. Obama’s approach (when he has been in charge from the beginning) has relied on a combination of diplomacy, intelligence gathering and sanctions with military action as a back up.
As our world is constantly changing, foreign policy is not static, but dynamic. This means an adept leader will be shifting policy and approach as dynamics change. An example of this is that the terrorism threat has shifted from being largely focused in Pakistan and Afghanistan to being spread through the Middle East and North Africa. So, as we drawdown in Afghanistan (a war started by former President Bush), we have new challenges to face.
In regards to Syria, for example, Senior Administration Officials argue that supporting the armed opposition, providing more cooperation with neighboring countries, and cooperating with allies and partners are important aspects of our assistance. In addition, they argue that we may need to support the opposition with possible military training, for which they would need and will seek Congressional approval.
On this matter, the issue for oversight then becomes keeping such approval limited enough that it doesn’t informally and without approval morph into boots on the ground, while not putting our troops in a situation where they can’t defend themselves if they’re fired upon while training rebel forces.
Flexibility is a must, but the flexibility must be limited. If only Republicans could act as loyal opposition, we could count on their zealous attempts to destroy this President as a Constitutional check on his power. But Republicans don’t seem capable of putting America and national security first over their attempts to destroy Obama.
“The military that you have joined is and always will be the backbone of that leadership. But U.S. military action cannot be the only — or even primary — component of our leadership in every instance,” the President said. “Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.”
And here is the most important part of any leader’s foreign policy. Are they considering the costs? The human costs in addition to the financial costs? Our troops are proud to serve, but they should be deployed with caution and with respect. “And because the costs associated with military action are so high, you should expect every civilian leader — and especially your Commander-in-Chief — to be clear about how that awesome power should be used.”
The press and Congress should serve as vigorous checks on any executive call to implement the military, but at the same time, our knee-jerk reactions to Bush’s abuse of power must not hamstring our troops and put them in a situation where they are sitting ducks. Awesome power requires awesome responsibility.
Obama’s careful and judicious use of alternative methods to fight terrorism, with the military as a secondary and not primary factor, is part of what makes this country a responsible leader on the global stage. We can’t make a perfect world, but we can and must try to use our power wisely.
Republicans call being wise and careful “decline”; I call it a positive step in humanity’s evolution.
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Sarah has been credentialed to cover President Barack Obama, then VP Joe Biden, 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and exclusively interviewed Speaker Nancy Pelosi multiple times and exclusively covered her first home appearance after the first impeachment of then President Donald Trump.
Sarah is two-time Telly award winning video producer and a member of the Society of Professional Journalists.