President Obama’s West Point speech reads like a takedown of Rand Paul

May 28, 2014

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.


WEST POINT, NY - MAY 28: U.S. President Barack Obama gives the commencement address at the graduation ceremony at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on May 28, 2014 in West Point, New York. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Obama never mentions Paul by name. But Paul's views -- described as isolationist by his detractors and non-interventionist by his allies -- repeatedly function as a rhetorical device against which Obama argues, and which he clearly means to reject as part of his broad vision of the post-Iraq/Afghanistan/Sept. 11 world and the United State's role in it.

Let's go through a few particularly Paul-y passages from Obama.

* "At least since George Washington served as commander-in-chief, there have been those who warned against foreign entanglements that do not touch directly on our security or economic well-being. Today, according to self-described realists, conflicts in Syria or Ukraine or the Central African Republic are not ours to solve. Not surprisingly, after costly wars and continuing challenges at home, that view is shared by many Americans."

Obama, like many -- Democrats and Republicans -- who reject the Paul view of the U.S. in the world, uses the idea that this isolationist tendency is nothing new and, since it has failed to catch on fully in the past, argue that it won't catch on this time either. Maybe so, but as Obama acknowledges, the Paul view is one held by a major chunk of the American populace. This chart -- courtesy of an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll conducted late last month --  tells that story powerfully.

NBCWSJ

 "American influence is always stronger when we lead by example. We cannot exempt ourselves from the rules that apply to everyone else.....It’s a lot harder to call on China to resolve its maritime disputes under the Law of the Sea Convention when the United States Senate has refused to ratify it – despite the repeated insistence of our top military leaders that the treaty advances our national security. That’s not leadership; that’s retreat. That’s not strength; that’s weakness."

The direct shot at the Senate and, though not named, Senate Republicans, is as close as Obama got in the speech to calling out the Paul-ist worldview by name. The Law of the Sea Convention died in the Senate in the summer of 2012 when Democrats failed to rally the two-thirds support necessary to end debate and bring it to a vote. Paul was was one of 34 Republican Senators officially on record in opposition to it.  Also, just in case you didn't get what Obama thought of the views of the likes of Paul, the use of the words "retreat" and "weakness" should clear that up nicely.

* "Remember that because of America’s efforts – through diplomacy and foreign assistance, as well as the sacrifices of our military – more people live under elected governments today than any time in human history....In Egypt, we acknowledge that our relationship is anchored in security interests – from the peace treaty with Israel, to shared efforts against violent extremism. So we have not cut off cooperation with the new government. But we can and will persistently press for the reforms that the Egyptian people have demanded."

Paul conducted a high-profile attempt to cut $1.5 billion in U.S. aid to Egypt and redirect it to American infrastructure improvements last summer. While Paul's amendment -- he was trying to add it to a transportation bill -- was tabled, he did get the votes of 12 other Senators including tea party favorites liked Mike Lee (Utah) and Ted Cruz (Texas).  “All I can see is the billions of American tax dollars that he chooses to send overseas,” Paul said of President Obama in a speech on the Senate floor before the vote. “The president sends billions of dollars to Egypt in the form of advanced fighter plans and tanks while Detroit crumbles. In our hour of need in our country, why are you sending money to people that hate us?"  Paul has also been outspoken on U.S. aid to Israel, calling it "welfare to a wealthy nation" in 2011.

* "Global leadership requires us to see the world as it is, with all its danger and uncertainty. But American leadership also requires us to see the world as it should be – a place where the aspirations of individual human beings matter; where hopes and not just fears govern; where the truths written into our founding documents can steer the currents of history in the direction of justice."

This reads as a more-or-less direct rebuke to Paul's insistence on the need for a more realistic foreign policy. "I really am a believer that foreign policy must be viewed by events as they present themselves, not as we wish them to be," Paul said in a speech at the Center for National Interest in January. Obama makes the case that "realism" isn't enough -- that part of the U.S.'s role in the world is to imagine how things could be and then undertake a set of policy prescriptions to make that image come to life.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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