A president makes a major foreign policy speech -- at West Point -- and the press and politicians ignore it or attack something it didn't say. When does this happen? It didn't happen to Eisenhower or Kennedy or Reagan or Clinton or the "war presidents."
The partisan snark and stunning shallowness of the pundits says a lot, unfortunately, about the sorry state of journalism today. Even The Atlantic had a deeply disappointing commentary: David Frum, George W. Bush's speechwriter, assailed Obama for not being Bush, and premises his criticisms on a series of conditional, false or unproven assumptions.
One example: President Obama said, "By most measures America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world. ... Our military has no peer. The odds of direct threat against us by any nation are low, and do not come close to the dangers we faced during the Cold War."
Quiz time: In Obama's West Point foreign policy speech, where he mentions three military measuring points, what "measures" is Obama talking about?
If you answered, "economic purchasing power," you'd have Frum's false-claim, straw-man double fallacy.
The so-called major media gave Obama's major foreign policy address afterthought attention. For instance, "NBC Nightly News" did not cover the story until 11 minutes into the broadcast. Maya Angelou's death and the efforts to push the Veterans Affairs secretary off a cliff pushed the president's speech deep into the program. Ah, priorities.
I urge you to read the speech in its entirety and ask yourself some critical questions. We should be having a national debate -- civil and responsible -- over the president's outline for dealing with foreign problems. There will be much to question, modify and revise. But first we should be sure that we are debating the president's policy, not a partisan red herring.
As I read the speech, there are two parts to the policy. First, military force will be used not so much as a tool of foreign policy, but only to protect the country. (You know, "provide for the common defense.")
"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."
Second, while rejecting isolationism -- "It is absolutely true that in the 21st century, American isolationism is not an option" -- Obama also rejects the proposal that "every problem has a military solution. Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint, but from our willingness to rush into military adventures."
Rather, he proposes what he calls a middle way, which is in fact very Eisenhower-esque: "When issues of global concern that do not pose a direct threat to the United States are at stake -- when crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction -- then the threshold for military action must be higher. In such circumstances ... we must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action. We must broaden our tools to include diplomacy and development; sanctions and isolation; appeals to international law and -- if just, necessary and effective -- multilateral military action."
Yes, specifics of this policy need to be questioned. The how and when it will be applied to the shifting conditions "on the ground" deserve analysis. (Obama himself gave some examples in his speech.)
Unfortunately, we can't depend on Capitol Hill to provide any thoughtful analysis or critique. The likes of former Sen. Richard Lugar get ignored or scorned or ousted. Today, the official policy of the Republican Party is anti-Obama and wave the sword some more. (Except for Rand Paul, who wants us to withdraw from the world with our head in the sand.)
During the last election, New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks commented on PBS: "The Republicans just -- they can't stop themselves. They just start rattling sabers. They can't do it quickly enough. They don't want to pay for it. They don't want to be involved in it, but, boy, they love war."
Indeed. Witness their apoplectic reaction to the situation in Ukraine.
Some may call Obama's approach "passive" or "dovish." I'd say Obama's deliberate references to two of his predecessors offer a better description. He quoted Eisenhower's 1947 address to West Point graduates: "War is mankind's most tragic and stupid folly; to seek or advise its deliberate provocation is a black crime against all men." He also referenced Kennedy's belief that peace must be based upon "a gradual evolution in human institutions."
There was a realism in the speech that surely disappoints the rose-colored absolutists. But as the president said, 21st-century wars do not end happily ever after with victory parades. There are no guarantees post-war Afghanistan will be perfect. Syria clearly does not have a military solution, even for the Syrians.
By all means, let us debate -- rationally and civilly -- the principles and specifics of the president's policies. Just don't depend on Congress or the foreign policy pundits to help. Their thinking caps are AWOL.