Is Obama Really a Hawk?

Obama’s Oslo address was a good speech. But good speeches don’t make foreign policy. Leslie H. Gelb on what the president needs to do now to fight—and win—the most important battle of all.

12.13.09 10:58 PM ET

Conservatives have read too much into Obama’s recent comments on the necessity of war. Leslie H. Gelb on the president’s peaceful—and increasingly promising—foreign policy.

There's nothing like a Nobel peace speech extolling war to unite the Washington commentariat and the foreign-policy community. They all loved President Obama’s Oslo oration. Who could oppose fighting Hitler or Osama bin Laden? Only far out multiculturalists plus Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. I liked the speech, too, given my all-too-frequent support of military force.

The real war of necessity, the war to keep us safe and free, must be fought in the trenches of diplomacy and the economy.

Liberals actually like to talk about wars in the name of human rights and democracy, though they feel uncomfortable saying so. Conservatives just like to threaten war all the time, and actually do go to war occasionally with overwhelming force, whatever the cause—oppression, to bring democracy to the heathens, to retain democracy for sinners, balance of power, monopoly of power, and to make liberals look weak. Besides, Republicans don’t worry about wars causing budget deficits, because the tooth fairy always pays the tab.

But going to war does not a foreign policy make. If Americans are searching for a new Obama foreign policy, they need to look back to the closing words of Obama’s two week-old West Point speech. Those paragraphs zeroed in on the overriding imperative of restoring America’s economic strength—the very heart of America’s military and diplomatic power, and economic competitiveness. Without that economic power, there will be no military and economic power, no military victories, not much of anything. This truth, one of the few truths in the foreign-policy business, is the only basis for a realistic and effective national-security policy. Most foreign-policy experts and media performers don’t know much about economics and find it boring. They couldn’t have been less interested in focusing on rebuilding economic strength. Nor were they terribly interested in exploring Mr. Obama’s assertion that Afghanistan was just one of many places from which terrorists could strike or just one of many ongoing international crises. They only wanted to know how many troops he was sending, and for how long. All this helps to explain why the commentariat also paid scant attention to the second part of the Oslo “war” address, which focused on what nations must do with their diplomatic power—carved from economic and military—to avoid war.

This is what I call the real war of necessity. Because of the war theme Mr. Obama wanted to highlight in Oslo, he got away from this larger West Point theme. But what specifically concerned me about the Oslo speech was its embrace by those who think they can now trap the president with his own ideas. They may be calculating that they now have him where they want him—what with his West Point announcement of a 30,000-troop boost in Afghanistan and his passionate justifications of war in Oslo. (He’s like the mayor who’s discovered the virtues of having a police department.)

Now, they hope Mr. Obama sees the light and will fight on to “win” in Afghanistan, maybe launch air strikes against Iran’s nuclear complexes, and perhaps drop a few nukes on North Korea. His Sir Galahad words could come back to haunt him. His rhetoric sometimes soared into unqualified eloquence. Eloquent people do get carried away. He rightly argued that some nations have an obligation to combat oppression.

Fine, but he should have been more careful and calibrated here. Perhaps he forgot that many people in recent history have put their lives on the line in repressive countries in the belief that the U.S. cavalry would ride to their rescue—and that they got slaughtered. If he intends to throw down the human-rights gauntlet, he will find dozens upon dozens of takers and possibilities. This potent war trumpet should not be sounded with such militant certainty, as Iran’s reformers keep trying to tell us.

So, yes, I was happy to hear Mr. Obama say that wars could be “moral,” and that there was “evil” (despite its echoes of George W. Bush) in the world, and that evil often thrives on naive love and understanding. That was a particularly apt point to make to sanctimonious Europeans in the Oslo audience. It was also good to hear him reminding them and others that their freedom depended on more than six decades of “blood [from] our citizens and the strength of our arms.” But admirers of these strong points generally failed to notice his transition sentence: “War is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly.”

The second part of the Obama speech, the part that I liked even more than the one about fighting wars, centered on actions “to avoid” wars and “build a just and lasting peace.”

First, he said, “Those regimes that break the rules must be held accountable. Sanctions must exact a real price. Intransigence must be met with increased pressure—and such pressure exists only when the world stands together as one… And the closer we stand together, the less likely we will be faced with the choice between armed intervention and complicity in oppression.” I like that point; now, Mr. Obama has to go out and make it happen.

Second, he said that pressure needs be accompanied by diplomacy. “I know that engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation. But I also know that sanctions without outreach—condemnation without discussion—can carry forward only a crippling status quo. No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door.” That’s another valuable point, but Mr. Obama has to buy the time and build the coalitions for diplomatic power to work.

Third, he stressed that “a just peace includes not only civil and political rights; it must encompass economic security and opportunity. For true peace is not just freedom from fear, but freedom from want.” Here, he nearly returned to the seminal theme of his West Point address—the absolute necessity that the United States and its allies restore their economies so that they will be able and more willing to undertake diplomatic pressures and threaten or take appropriate military action.

It is no wonder that these words about waging peace perished in his eloquence about waging war. Economics and diplomacy are inherently fuzzy; the clarion call to war is pure, chilling, passionate. And yet, the real war of necessity, the war to keep us safe and free, must be fought in the trenches of diplomacy and the economy. If President Obama combined the themes of Oslo and West Point, he would have a foreign- and national-security policy that commands America, its friends and allies.

Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.