Politics & Policy

Obama at West Point: Lessons Unlearned

The Alternative to Failed Multinationalism Was Staring Him in the Face.

On Saturday, Pres. Barack Obama gave a commencement speech at the United States Military Academy at West Point, which in effect told the thousand or so soon-to-be second lieutenants that, if he has his way, they’ll soon be out of a job.

Obama outlined for the cadets his vision of a new international order organized around bodies such as the United Nations. In Obama’s future, American military force will give way to American diplomacy joined together with new multilateral partnerships, while “stronger international standards and institutions” will replace unilateral assertion of national interests — including our own. Obama told West Point’s Class of 2010 that he sees them not battling our enemies but “combating a changing climate and sustaining global growth, [and] helping countries feed themselves” even as their citizens achieve their “universal rights.”

We’ve had presidents who wanted to thrust visions of a new world order on us: after World War I, after World War II, and then after Desert Storm. But all these great grand visions came hot on the heels of amazing American success in war and foreign policy. Obama, in contrast, is pushing his new multilateral “international order” hot on the heels of two important failures — in Iran and North Korea. Obama’s vision for America’s future flies in the face of reality and fails to account for his own experience as president.

Last week, Iranian president Ahmadinejad gleefully joined hands with the presidents of Brazil and Turkey after striking a deal that all but ensures Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon — a development that Obama and his predecessors, Democrat and Republican, hoped to prevent. Promises of tough future United Nations sanctions are worthless. The critical votes on the Security Council, China and Russia, are clear that they will never approve anything that interferes with their economic interests in Iran. In China’s case, that means new lucrative oil and natural-gas deals, while Russia is selling Tehran surface-to-air missiles that will render Iran’s nuclear sites impregnable by anything short of American stealth bombers.

Those stealth bombers are directed and piloted by the U.S. Air Force, meaning that the counterparts of the West Point cadets in Obama’s audience will soon be all that stands between the world and a nuclear-armed Iran, thanks to a misplaced faith in diplomacy and multi-lateral engagement.

Then there is North Korea. We learned last week that its torpedoing of a South Korean warship last March, an act of aggression that killed 46, was deliberate and probably was ordered by dictator Kim Jong Il. The North Korean situation is also the product of faith in diplomacy without strength, and faith in the same two fickle partners, Russia and China. Back in the Clinton years, our goal was to keep North Korea from acquiring a nuclear bomb. When that failed, the goal became preventing Pyongyang from building and testing the missiles needed to wreak nuclear annihilation on its neighbors. North Korea’s success at acquiring long-range missiles means that neighborhood may now include Alaska.


The most recent diplomatic project for North Korea is intended to keep the planet’s last Stalinist regime from spreading its lethal technologies to other rogue nations, such as Iran and Syria. Given our track record, the prognosis for this undertaking is not good. In fact, North Korea offers a preview of what to expect if Iran does get the bomb, or if Saddam Hussein had done so before 2003: a rogue nuclear power too dangerous to stop as it commits outrages and blackmails its neighbors, marauding where it pleases and threatened by nothing more lethal than one long-winded United Nations resolution after another.

The one object of Obama’s disapprobation in his speech was not Iran or North Korea but George W. Bush. Obama never mentioned Bush by name, but he took a stab at his predecessor, saying that that under his administration the war against al-Qaeda has been “going better in recent months than in recent years.” (If it’s going so well, then why is Dennis Blair being forced out as director of national intelligence?) Another implicit criticism of Bush was Obama’s claim that “America has not succeeded by stepping outside the currents of international cooperation.” Yet it was precisely Bush’s willingness to move away from that current that has offered the nation one key foreign-policy success that Obama is eager to seize: Iraq. We owe what Obama called “the emergence of a democratic Iraq that is sovereign, stable, and self-reliant” to George W. Bush’s willingness to defy conventional world opinion on Iraq. Bush was willing to apply America’s military might, and to persist — despite savage attacks from Senator Obama and others who would have preferred to cut and run — because he saw a different future. And that future was made possible because Bush took actions that were at odds with what is called the international community. He unleashed our soldiers to fight the enemy, and fight they did.

In that sense, Saturday’s speech was a sad but revealing episode — and an ill-timed one, coming one week before Memorial Day. The alternative to Obama’s vision was, literally, staring him in the face. Without ready military power and the will to use it, even the most exquisite diplomacy is useless. Unlike Obama, West Point cadets don’t get to graduation without learning that lesson.

– Arthur Herman’s most recent book, Gandhi and Churchill: The Epic Rivalry That Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2009.


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