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Obama vs. His Imagined Critics

In his much ballyhooed West Point address, President Obama employed what in the 1990s was known as “triangulation”–but not an effective or convincing form of triangulation, rather one that appears to be mainly rhetorical instead of policy oriented. 

The president set up a conflict between “self-described realists” who warn against “foreign entanglements that do not touch directly on our security or economic well-being” and “interventionists on the left and right” who claim “that America’s willingness to apply force around the world is the ultimate safeguard against chaos, and America’s failure to act in the face of Syrian brutality or Russian provocations not only violates our conscience, but invites escalating aggression in the future.”

Naturally Obama claimed that his policy is equidistant between these extremes: “It is absolutely true that in the 21st century, American isolationism is not an option. … But to say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution.”

Yet who says “that every problem has a military solution”? Obama is punching at a straw man, and he continued to do so throughout his address. Some more examples:

* “I would betray my duty to you, and to the country we love, if I sent you into harm’s way simply because I saw a problem somewhere in the world that needed fixing, or because I was worried about critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak.”

* “A strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naïve and unsustainable.”

*“As frustrating as it is, there are no easy answers – no military solution that can eliminate the terrible suffering anytime soon. As President, I made a decision that we should not put American troops into the middle of this increasingly sectarian civil war [in Syria], and I believe that is the right decision.”

*“Of course, skeptics often downplay the effectiveness of multilateral action. For them, working through international institutions, or respecting international law, is a sign of weakness. I think they’re wrong.”

I wonder if Obama or his speechwriters could possibly identify a single person who thinks that it’s a good idea to invade “every country that harbors terrorist networks,” or who thinks that putting American troops into Syria is the way to go, or who argues that “working through international institutions, or respecting international law, is a sign of weakness.” 

Maybe there is such a person out there but I have yet to meet him or her, much less to find a large movement espousing such views. What Obama is doing here is caricaturing criticism of his foreign policy so he can rebut it more easily. In particular he is conflating “tough action” with “military action” and “military action” with “boots on the ground.”

No one is arguing that we should bomb Russia but many (including me) are arguing that we need a tougher response to Russian aggression to include more wide-ranging sanctions and the stationing of U.S. troops in NATO frontline states. 

Likewise, no one is arguing for sending troops to Syria. But many have been arguing for stepping up assistance to the Syrian opposition and employing air strikes if necessary to aid their campaign to overthrow the Iranian-supported Assad regime. 

Obama himself used just such a combination of covert aid and air strikes to overthrow Qaddafi in Libya—as Clinton did in Bosnia and Kosovo and as George W. Bush did initially in Afghanistan. This is a relatively low-cost way to project American military power that doesn’t risk putting troops on the ground. But to listen to the West Point address you would think this option doesn’t exist—the only choices Obama seems to recognize now are either diplomatic posturing or a massive, Iraq-style ground invasion.

Finally, no one I know of seriously thinks that “working through international institutions, or respecting international law, is a sign of weakness.” What many (including me) argue is that, while we should try to utilize multilateral institutions where possible, we should not hold our policy hostage to a failure to win agreement at the UN Security Council—as Obama seems to be doing in the case of Syria and Iran.

In rebutting his many critics, Obama would be more persuasive if seriously engaged their arguments instead of rebutting arguments that no one is making in the real world.



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