President Obama’s speech at West Point was not so much an articulation of his foreign policy but a defensive response to critics. With the exception of some details, such as the drawdown of troops in Afghanistan, the establishment of a new Counterterrorism Partnership fund, and his new interest in Syria, there was nothing new in what he presented (and of course his Syria policy is an example of “a day late and a dollar short” — which might be the appropriate foreign-policy motto of this administration). Oh and of course his apparently rediscovered belief “with every fiber of my being” in American exceptionalism. Always a critic of “false choices” in foreign policy — intervention vs. isolation, war vs. diplomacy — his speech was a recitation of one after another.
And his risible claim that “America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world,” that “those who argue otherwise — who suggest that America is in decline or has seen its global leadership slip away — are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics,” surely evoked gales of laughter in Moscow, Beijing, and Tehran, and concern in Jerusalem, Tokyo, Seoul, and Warsaw. As Thomas Hobbes observed in Leviathan, “Reputation of power is power, because it draweth with it the adherence of those that need protection.” Conversely, the reputation of weakness is weakness, and despite all of the measures of national power that the president cites, the credibility of American power has diminished on his watch, not out of drift but because of his distinct choices. As recent global events have illustrated, both America’s adversaries and friends pay attention to what the United States says and does. The perception of American weakness emboldens the former and disheartens the latter.
The president has repeated the tired refrain that he was not elected to start wars but to end them. However, despite his implication, wars are not fought for their own sake. Wars are fought to achieve some goal. The tragedy is that thanks to his fecklessness and predisposition to subordinate foreign policy to partisan politics, the purpose for which the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan were fought will be lost.