Actually, all of those adjectives come from the New York Times — and that’s the most sympathetic take on Barack Obama’s big pivot/comeback speech on foreign policy. The West Point address accomplished a rarity in media and politics by creating a consensus between the editorial boards of the NYT, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. That consensus, however, is that Obama flopped in his straw-man approach to criticism and his utter incoherence on American policy. When a President can’t convince one of these three on policy, it may be time to find a new approach — or perhaps a new team (via AoSHQ).
The open from the NYT hints at what’s coming:
President Obama and his aides heralded his commencement speech at the United States Military Academy at West Point on Wednesday as a big moment, when he would lay out his foreign policy vision for the remainder of his term and refute his critics. The address did not match the hype, was largely uninspiring, lacked strategic sweep and is unlikely to quiet his detractors, on the right or the left.
Yes, that’s the most sympathetic read. The NYT editorial turns harsh toward the end:
[H]e provided little new insight into how he plans to lead in the next two years, and many still doubt that he fully appreciates the leverage the United States has even in a changing world. Falling back on hackneyed phrases like America is the “indispensable nation” told us little.
The president said he wanted to spend $5 billion to train and support armies in places like Libya, Mali, Yemen and Somalia to combat terrorists. The aim is to avoid having to use American troops, and, in theory, it makes sense. But the United States has a checkered history in such endeavors, and Mr. Obama made only a cursory mention of other factors crucial to success, including responsible governance and education for all. It was disturbing to hear him gloss over the return of military rule in Egypt.
Mr. Obama’s talk of the need for more transparency about drone strikes and intelligence gathering, including abusive surveillance practices, was ludicrous. His administration had to be dragged into even minimal disclosures on both topics. Just Tuesday, the administration said it wanted to make further deletions from a legal memo on drone strikes that a court ordered it to make public.
The Washington Post’s editors could hardly contain their scorn for the army of straw men Obama attempted to battle:
In his address Wednesday to the graduating cadets at West Point , 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.”
Few, if any, of those who question the president’s record hold such views. Instead, they are asking why an arbitrary date should be set for withdrawing all forces from Afghanistan, especially given the baleful results of the “zero option” in Iraq. They are suggesting that military steps short of the deployment of U.S. ground troops could stop the murderous air and chemical attacks by the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. They are arguing that the United States should not be constrained by Cyprus or Bulgaria in responding to Russia’s invasion and annexation of parts of Ukraine.
To those doubters, the president’s address offered scant comfort. Reiterating and further tightening a doctrine he laid out in a speech to the United Nations last fall, Mr. Obama said the United States should act unilaterally only in defense of a narrow set of “core interests,” such as the free flow of trade. When “crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction,” he said, “we should not go it alone.”
This binding of U.S. power places Mr. Obama at odds with every U.S. president since World War II. In effect, he ruled out interventions to stop genocide or reverse aggression absent a direct threat to the U.S. homeland or a multilateral initiative. Those terms would exclude missions by previous administrations in places such as Somalia and Haiti and Mr. Obama’s own proposal to strike Syria last year — but not the war in Iraq, which was a multilateral campaign.
One might think that a foreign policy speech that draws such ire from the NYT and the Washington Post might at least get a little enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend love from the Wall Street Journal. Instead, the WSJ editorial board noticed a few gaping holes in Obama’s big foreign policy speech:
No mention of the Reset. “The reset button has worked,” Mr. Obama avowed in a 2009 meeting with Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s figurehead president. That was the same year Mr. Obama announced in Moscow that, “The days when empires could treat sovereign states as pieces on a chessboard are over.”
No mention of the Pivot or “rebalance” to Asia. This was billed by Hillary Clinton in 2011 as “among the most important diplomatic efforts of our time” and meant as proof that America’s withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan wasn’t simply a retreat from the world. But as assistant secretary of defense Katrina McFarland admitted in March, following the latest round of Pentagon cuts, “Right now, the pivot is being looked at again, because candidly it can’t happen.”
No mention of Mr. Obama’s Red Line in Syria against the use of chemical weapons. No mention, either, of the ostensible success of using diplomacy to disarm Bashar Assad. The President was fond of boasting of this achievement until recently, when it emerged that Assad continues to use chlorine bombs to kill his enemies. Somehow that also didn’t make it into the speech.
No mention of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which occupied the bulk of John Kerry‘s first year as Secretary of State and which has now collapsed as Mahmoud Abbas patches up his differences with the terrorists of Hamas.
In comparison, the reception from West Point cadets was positively warm. CNN’s Jim Clancy noted the “icy” reception (via Noah Rothman at Mediaite):
“It was a philosophical speech,” Clancy said. “It was not a commander-in-chief speaking to his troops. And you heard the reception. I mean, it was pretty icy.”
It’s not getting much better outside of West Point, either.