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What Do Obama’s Critics Want From Him?

The reporting on President Obama’s foreign-policy address at West Point yesterday closely resembles the reporting that previewed the speech–a strong indication that the president didn’t make much of a point. Even the New York Times noticed the occasional “straw-man argument” on which Obama’s main themes rested. Listening to his critics, the Times reports, the president “grows deeply frustrated.”

So do the president’s defenders. There are far fewer of them in the wake of this speech, as the president didn’t really say much at all even though the address was billed as a way to clear things up a bit. Thus Fred Kaplan both gets the speech exactly right and the reaction to it perfectly wrong when he writes: “President Obama’s speech at West Point on Wednesday morning could be called a tribute to common sense, except that the sense it made is so uncommon.”

In fact, the criticism of the speech was really the opposite: everyone knows that, as Kaplan says, “not every problem has a military solution.” The chief complaint about Obama is that he refuses to engage intellectually with his critics; he merely creates straw men–such as those who think every problem has a military solution–and then strikes them down. He’s only ever arguing with himself. But Kaplan does highlight the reason the president felt goaded into making his speech in the first place: he wonders just what his critics want from him.

The answer is that they want a coherent vision with explanatory power, not truisms about the hell of war. The problem for Obama and his defenders like Kaplan is that, as David Frum notes, the president’s foreign policy isn’t chalking up much of a success rate. So contemptuous hand-waving about “common sense” doesn’t say much for the president: if he’s guided by such obviously sensible instincts, why is American policy so ineffectual? Here’s Frum (ellipses in the original):

If Obama had met his stated goals in Afghanistan … if the Russia “reset” had worked … if Iran talks were indeed producing nuclear disarmament … if the president’s “red line” in Syria was not being crossed and recrossed like center-ice in an exciting hockey game … if his Libyan intervention had not resulted in Libya becoming a more violent and unstable place … if his administration had sustained the progress toward peace in Iraq achieved during George W. Bush’s second term—if all this had been the case, the president would have been content to simply present his impressive record. But it is not the case.

Obama missing his own stated goals is not the fault of hawks to his right or humanitarian interventionists to his left. He is not the victim here. He’s right about American leadership. But that has been true since the end of World War II, and often American leadership has been extraordinarily successful. It has not been while under Obama’s stewardship.

In his new book on the transfer of Western leadership from Britain to the U.S. after World War II, Aiyaz Husain, a historian at the State Department, highlights the role that each leader’s “mental maps” played in the development of the postwar order. Husain writes of the British perspective, which was that of an empire slowly losing its hold on distant lands and thus keen to protect important footholds in each area through what Husain calls “regionalism.” In contrast, the American conception of the world was quite different, consisting of “globalism” and the integration of a stable world system:

The geographic assumptions in this globalism came to shape postwar American grand strategy. As James Lay, the executive secretary of the National Security Council wrote in 1952 in the pages of World Affairs, the administration had realized early on that “policies developed for the security of the United States have far-reaching impact throughout the world. Likewise, events throughout the world affect our national security. Policies, therefore, can no longer be decided solely within geographical limitations.”

When the British sought to make revisions to a plan for the postwar order that would have protected some of their waning influence, FDR sternly and impatiently responded that they “smacked too much [of] ‘spheres of influence’ policies, the very thing which it was supposedly designed to prevent.” The American perspective, carried out by the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, was a coherent and prescient view of the emerging interconnected world with American leadership at the helm.

The concern by some of our allies around the world today is that America, under Obama, is acting more like postwar Britain than FDR and Truman’s United States. They wonder if we’re ceding influence while trying to mask retreat in token diplomatic gestures and occasional displays of interest or strength intended to keep a foothold, but no more than a foothold, in regions too important to leave behind but too chaotic to defend with press releases.

America does not have imperial properties around the globe as Britain did, of course. At the same time, there is no other United States to step into the vacuum and protect a globalism that could easily give way to regionalism. And painting those who want to know if America can still be counted on as warmongers is not going to reassure anyone.

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