President Obama’s West Point Speech Limits U.S. Goals—and Fails to Rally the Troops

Obama’s West Point address laid out a smart, serious Afghan strategy placing limits on America’s goals. Not exactly the stirring message needed to lead a nation into battle.

President Barack Obama addresses graduates of the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, NY on Saturday, May 22, 2010. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite / AP Photo)

This weekend, for the second time in six months, President Obama flew to West Point to deliver a big foreign policy speech. And for the second time in six months, he delivered a clunker. Don’t blame his foreign policy speechwriters. Blame that pesky war in Afghanistan.

Obama’s problem is not that he doesn’t have big, serious ideas about foreign policy. To the contrary, he has several of them, which he trots out again and again. The first is “collective security,” the idea that the same forces that threaten the United States—global warming, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, financial collapse—also threaten most other nations, and that they can only be solved through intensive global cooperation. In the United States, collective security was the brainchild of Woodrow Wilson, who told Americans that they were entering World War I not to restore the European balance of power, but to create a League of Nations that would bring all the world’s “civilized” nations together to safeguard their common interest in prosperity and peace. It has been the default liberal foreign policy vision ever since.

At West Point, Obama was addressing cadets who are being called to make an unlimited sacrifice. Telling them they and their buddies are going to risk their lives to break the Taliban’s momentum is not exactly the stuff of Churchill.

“Collective security” is a compelling—if never fully achievable—vision, especially in a world where rising temperatures menace every nation. And Obama gestured toward it at West Point, declaring that America must steer the world’s “currents of cooperation.” The problem is that he was speaking to cadets likely to ship out to Afghanistan, a war that actually illustrates the limits of collective security. Obama may believe that the jihadist presence in the Hindu Kush threatens America’s allies as much as it threatens America, but America’s allies disagree. In fact, some of them are pulling out. So at the very moment Obama is outlining a foreign policy based upon global cooperation, his most important foreign policy venture—the war in Afghanistan—is becoming ever more unilateral.

A second Obama theme is that American foreign policy has become overly militarized, that “the burdens of this century cannot fall on our soldiers alone.” This too has a proud lineage. Although we’ve come to associate containment of the Soviet Union with NATO, the organization was only created in 1949, by which time, George Kennan believed, the threat of communist takeover in Western Europe was already receding. What really stopped communism’s advance, Kennan argued, was the economic aid in the Marshall Plan. The Obama administration’s effort to boost America’s civilian presence in Afghanistan and Iraq fits this squarely within this tradition. But at the end of the day, it’s hard to credibly claim that you’re demilitarizing American foreign policy while sending tens of thousands more troops to fight. The point isn’t that Obama’s surge is necessarily misguided. It’s that, yet again, his broader foreign policy vision, and the war in Afghanistan, doesn’t easily jibe.

Obama’s third big foreign policy theme is that for America to be strong abroad, it must be strong at home. On the surface, who could disagree? But what Obama is really suggesting is that for America to be strong at home, it will have to pull back from wars it can’t pay for. That’s what he means when he says that “our adversaries would like to see America sap its strength by overextending our power.”

Obama is clearly trying to ensure that the Afghan war no longer be run on a blank check. That’s why he famously brought OMB Director Peter Orszag to be photographed at an Afghanistan strategy session, and why, according to Jonathan Alter’s new book, The Promise, he demanded that the U.S. begin drawing down troops next summer, over the objections of top military brass. As I suggest in my own forthcoming book, The Icarus Syndrome, I think Obama’s effort to restore humility to American foreign policy will be his defining intellectual and political struggle. But it’s a struggle. And the West Point speech shows why. Because Obama believes that America must limit the amount of money and time it devotes to Afghanistan, he has limited America’s goals. Rather than defeating the Taliban we’re going to “break” their “momentum.” Rather than birthing a stable Afghan democracy, we’re going to “train Afghan security forces.” That’s a limited mission, all right. The problem is that at West Point, Obama was addressing cadets who are being called to make an unlimited sacrifice. Telling them they and their buddies are going to risk their lives to break the Taliban’s momentum is not exactly the stuff of Churchill.

America has always had trouble with limited wars. To rouse a nation separated by oceans from its adversaries, American presidents have often dressed up military interventions as world-altering crusades, as George W. Bush did when he spoke at West Point about the “war on terror” in 2002. As a result, when presidents try to curb those crusades—as Harry Truman did when he pulled back to the 38th parallel in Korea or George H. W. Bush did when he refused to march to Baghdad—they often pay a political price. Like Truman and the elder Bush, Obama is trying to limit America’s wartime goals, to define victory down rather than either going for broke or giving up. It may be a defensible strategy, but it’s not an inspiring one. And it’s not a strategy for which the American public is prepared to lose many lives. Perhaps the president should avoid West Point graduations for a while.

Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, will be published by HarperCollins in June. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.