Bush and Obama at West Point: Bookends of a Foreign Policy Era

Two presidents. One stage. A dozen years apart.

One was speaking to the West Point graduating class that would be the first to go off to a kind of war this country had never fought before. In that June 1, 2002, commencement address, George W. Bush made the case that in the post 9/11 era, " If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long. ... Our security will require all Americans to be forward-looking and resolute, to be ready for preemptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives."

By September of that year, Bush's doctrine of "pre-emptive" war had fully taken shape, and the country was preparing to go off to its first war ever against an enemy that had not engaged in cross-border aggression or an assault on American citizens or interests. In March, 2003, the invasion of Iraq began.

On Wednesday, President Obama spoke to the first West Point graduating class in a dozen years for whom warfare is not a foregone conclusion. The advance word was that this speech would be a roadmap to foreign policy for the remainder of his term, maybe beyond it, and a rebuttal to critics who say he has allowed this country's place in the world to decline.

But it was also a bookend to the era that his predecessor had launched at that same event in 2002.

"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," Obama said.

Unless America's "core interests" are clearly on the line, Obama argued, " 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."

It was not a new message for Obama. Indeed, one of the reasons that he had won his party's nomination in 2008 was the fact that he had early-on, as a state senator in 2002, declared Iraq a "dumb war." He had ended the war in Iraq, and on Tuesday, had announced that U.S. troops would be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2016, except for a small presence at the embassy.

His West Point address failed to satisfy his critics on either the left or the right.

The New York Times editorial page wrote that it was a missed opportunity, "largely uninspiring, lacked strategic sweep." On Fox News, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer said the speech "set out this ridiculous contrast between extreme isolationism on the one hand, and extreme, almost a caricature of intervention, on the other hand.”

But one thing Obama was clear about is that the country has turned a page, that the bar for intervention is higher, and that the nation's interest will have to be clearly on the line before the nation's military will be put there too.

 

 

Karen Tumulty is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where she received the 2013 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.
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