When President Obama gave the commencement address at West Point last Wednesday, he received his share of criticism (and here) and, of course, ruffled many feathers on the right. Generally, this criticism confirms our suspicions that actual fact play very little role in criticisms leveled at Obama, but rather follow the Bushian contours of a reality crafted on the spot but ever-changing to suit whatever complaints you might have at any given moment in time.
First President Obama’s address:
Next, the criticisms:
Islamophobe Pamela Geller took to World Net Daily yesterday to accuse Obama of issuing a “rebuke to U.S. greatness.” The increasingly unhinged Geller seems to have heard nothing Obama actually said but instead substituted what she believes about Obama via Fox News and the equally unhinged contents of WND itself.
Geller tendentiously wrote that,
His contempt for American patriots is palpable, and his war on Americans using the NSA, the DHS and the IRS is unprecedented. He is a despicable liar, and history will not be kind to this foreign agent.
Never mind that President George W. Bush initiated the NSA spying everyone – including Geller – is so upset about, not Obama, whatever course it took after 2001 (The Electronic Frontier Foundation provides a complete timeline here). Never mind that the IRS actually went after left-wing organizations more than right wing, and that contrary to right wing conspiracy theorists, the DHS isn’t waging war on anybody. Maybe she’s still believing in those death camps. She sure isn’t placing any reliance on reality.
What did Obama really say? He pointed out that contrary to the stance of interventionists, “not…every problem has a military solution,” and quoted Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1947 commencement address: “War is mankind’s most tragic and stupid folly; to seek or advise its deliberate provocation is a black crime against all men.”
No. President Eisenhower (the guy who warned us about the military-industrial complex) would not be elected by Republicans today.
Obama described what he called his “vision for how the United States of America, and our military, should lead in the years to come”:
First, let me repeat a principle I put forward at the outset of my presidency: The United States will use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when our core interests demand it — when our people are threatened; when our livelihoods are at stake; when the security of our allies is in danger.
In these circumstances, we still need to ask tough questions about whether our actions are proportional and effective and just. International opinion matters, but America should never ask permission to protect our people, our homeland or our way of life. (Applause.)
On the other hand, when issues of global concern do not pose a direct threat to the United States, when such issues are at stake, when crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction but do not directly threaten us, then the threshold for military action must be higher. In such circumstances, we should not go it alone. Instead, we must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action. We have to broaden our tools to include diplomacy and development, sanctions and isolation, appeals to international law, and, if just, necessary and effective, multilateral military action. In such circumstances, we have to work with others because collective action in these circumstances is more likely to succeed, more likely to be sustained, less likely to lead to costly mistakes.
These words were really nothing remarkable. Remember when Obama won the Nobel prize in 2009 and he said, “There will be times when nations, acting individually or in concert, will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified”? Military theorist Carl von Clausewitz had already, almost two centuries earlier said, “War is the continuation of policy (Politik) by other means.”
Sometimes you have to go to war. The thing is, sometimes you don’t. This should be obvious, just as it should be obvious that if you resolve to go to war, it should be for very good reasons. When Clausewitz said, “War is thus an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will,” he did not seek to imply that war should be our first, or only, choice. War is clearly what you do when nothing else works.
Diplomacy may not be as profitable as war (Cheney’s Haliburton made $39.5 billion off the Iraq war alone), but our lives should not be seen as playthings of the 1 percent, who sit back and count their profits while other people die. It is much easier to start a war than to finish one, as our ill-conceived adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq have proved many times over. People who are too anxious for war seem frighteningly far removed from its consequences.
What rankled Geller most was Obama saying that “Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.”
Geller claimed that,
Obama insisted that “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.” The problem with this is that Obama never saw a nail he liked, unless it was to support a jihadist agenda (i.e., Syria, Libya, Egypt, Nigeria, etc.).
Tell that to Osama bin Laden.
As always, Geller is obsessed with Islam, complaining that “The Department of Defense apologizes to savages for an accidental Quran burning.” Muslims, for Geller, are savages. For what, waging war? Isn’t that what she herself wishes to do?
Mr. Obama marshaled a virtual corps of straw men, dismissing those who “say that every problem has a military solution,” who “think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak,” who favor putting “American troops into the middle of [Syria’s] increasingly sectarian civil war,” who propose “invading every country that harbors terrorist networks” and who think that “working through international institutions . . . or respecting international law is a sign of weakness.”
According to WaPo’s editors, ” Few, if any, of those who question the president’s record hold such views” which itself seems a remarkable statement since it’s quite obvious they do hold these views. We hear these things said all the time, or at least suggested.
Chris Cillizza at The Washington Post wrote,
Read one way, President Obama’s big-think speech on foreign policy delivered at West Point on Wednesday amounts to a point-by-point takedown of the worldview espoused by Kentucky Sen. (and all-but-announced 2016 presidential candidate) Rand Paul.
It is hardly a surprise to anyone that Obama disagrees with Rand Paul on foreign policy. He would not have had to make a deliberate effort to refute Paul while outlining his own foreign policy vision.
Geller thought she was making a takedown of President Obama, but because she really does not know what she is talking about, she only exposed her own ignorance instead:
He praised “American exceptionalism” while damning it. Obama said, “What makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it is our willingness to affirm them through our actions.” Wrong, President Obama. What makes us exceptional is individual rights, not “international norms.” Individual rights is a refutation of international law. Individualism is a rebuke to international law.
She’s wrong, of course. Catastrophically wrong on an order of magnitude. As the editors of America magazine wrote in rebuking President George W. Bush in 2004,
The founding fathers took international law very seriously. In the U.S. Constitution, treaties, along with federal laws, are declared to be “the supreme Law of the Land.” In addition, the Judiciary Act of 1789 provided that foreigners could bring suit in U.S. district courts for torts committed “in violation of treaties and the laws of nations.” As the fledgling United States assumed membership in the community of nations, this was a nod by the founders toward standards of international legality.
The Founding Fathers – and President Obama – have had the wit to recognize that America does not exist in a vacuum, that foreign opinions of the United States do matter, and that those opinions must guide our interactions on the world stage. They also recognized, as Geller does not, that our individual rights no more trump the rights of other nations than the right to own a gun according to the Second Amendment trumps the inalienable right to life guaranteed, as the very basis of our nation, in the Declaration of Independence.
It is one thing to make a cogent argument against the president’s policies, foreign or domestic, one based upon facts and grounded in a firm premise. There are indeed straw men aplenty to be found, not in Obama’s address, but rather in the criticisms marshaled against it.
In the end, one does not need to argue that President Obama is perfect in order to demonstrate that in his foreign policy vision, the United States has again found a measure of sanity and responsibility lacking in the eight years of madness known as the Bush presidency.
Obama photo from New York Magazine
Hrafnkell Haraldsson, a social liberal with leanings toward centrist politics has degrees in history and philosophy. His interests include, besides history and philosophy, human rights issues, freedom of choice, religion, and the precarious dichotomy of freedom of speech and intolerance. He brings a slightly different perspective to his writing, being that he is neither a follower of an Abrahamic faith nor an atheist but a polytheist, a modern-day Heathen who follows the customs and traditions of his Norse ancestors. He maintains his own blog, A Heathen’s Day, which deals with Heathen and Pagan matters, and Mos Maiorum Foundation www.mosmaiorum.org, dedicated to ethnic religion. He has also contributed to NewsJunkiePost, GodsOwnParty and Pagan+Politics.