The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Obama just accidentally explained why his foreign policy hasn’t worked

Sea of confusion: West Point underclassmen give the president a hearing. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

At West Point today, President Obama marched out his army of straw men and continued his ungracious habit of taking credit for successful actions attributable to his predecessor. But at bottom, the policy he outlined will be of little comfort to our allies and to the cause of freedom in the world.

There were as many straw men as cadets. The president railed against “critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak” and insisted that “U.S. military action cannot be the only—or even primary—component of leadership.” He kindly informed us that “a strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naïve and unsustainable.” He thanked himself for the decision “that we should not put American troops into the middle of this increasingly sectarian civil war” in Syria, as if anyone anywhere had suggested doing so.

Once again, the president caricatures the views of his critics rather than addressing them fairly—not much of a contribution to a good national debate over foreign policy. And on Syria, the new plan he announced—vaguely saying he’ll “work with Congress to ramp up support” for some Syrian rebels—is precisely the proposal that many members of his own Cabinet, and scores of analysts outside the administration, have been making for two years. He offered no explanation whatsoever for why he is now accepting advice he has been rejecting for all that time.

Mr. Obama began the speech by reminding us, as he always does, that he inherited two wars and “the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.” If you thought he would also, to be fair, note his predecessor’s achievements, you were wrong. Discussing Africa, Mr. Obama said, “American assistance has made possible the prospect of an AIDS-free generation,” but could not bring himself to say who undertook that effort: George Bush. When it came to Iran, Mr. Obama said, “At the beginning of my presidency, we built a coalition that imposed sanctions on the Iranian economy.” This is not only ungracious but plain wrong: that coalition in the Security Council was built by the Bush administration, which won unanimous votes there repeatedly.

When it came to substance, the problem with the speech was that it was delivered in Year Five but gave no fair description of the five previous years. On Egypt, to take one example, Mr. Obama said, “We can and will persistently press for the reforms the Egyptian people have demanded.” Perhaps we can and perhaps we will, but why believe this after we have failed to do so for five years, instead cozying up to Mubarak, and then the SCAF, and then Morsi? “America’s support for democracy and human rights,” hailed by the president, has been very weak during his years in office—in Russia and China, in Iran and Egypt, in Venezuela and Cuba. America has not effectively challenged dictators, nor has it defended human rights activists and journalists when repressive regimes jailed them. “Engagement” with regimes has been the most important goal. To state now that support for human rights “goes beyond idealism—it’s a matter of national security” is nice, but if that is all true, where has he been since January 2009?

Mr. Obama did present a new approach to international security, however—well, not too new. We’re going to build “a network of partnerships” to fight terror. We’re going to train forces that will help us achieve this goal: “having other nations maintain order in their own neighborhoods” is the formula. Once upon a time this train-and-equip approach was known as the Nixon Doctrine. Today, it is very unclear who these nations are; Mr. Obama did not tell us. He spoke instead of “nations who provide peacekeepers” to the U.N. He also added that we would try to provide such support through the U.S. military, openly, rather than through the CIA, so that we could “explain our efforts clearly and publicly.” This is a very worthy goal, but it isn’t at all clear it can be achieved. Very often training—for example, of Syrian rebels—is done in countries that would rather keep the whole thing out of the news. The secrecy is at their behest, not ours, and Mr. Obama’s speech won’t change that.

At bottom, the speech was a labored defense of a foreign policy that has come under attack from left and right recently for being weak. Mr. Obama’s response was to say that the refusals to lead here or act there are all in the plan, and the refusals are called “multilateralism,” and anyway the alternative is constant invasions and wars and Iraqs and Afghanistans. Mr. Obama said early in the speech that “Russia’s aggression toward former Soviet states unnerves capitals in Europe, while China’s economic rise and military reach worry its neighbors.” Their nerves won’t be any better after listening to what he said at West Point.