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There is much to dissect and criticize from the president’s speech today at West Point—such as his superficial use of straw men who would either use the military for every foreign policy problem in the world or those who don’t see any security interests beyond protecting our own borders. Of course, in that light, the president’s own policies look prudent and principled. And, indeed, in many parts of the speech, he actually sets out policy views that many would agree with—such as the need to build up partnership capacities in states to deal with terrorism or continue to push for the expansion of human rights and democracy globally.
But of course the rub here is not the particular policy views he espouses but the reality of his administration’s implementation of those views. It is the failure to make concrete his admonitions that has brought him and his administration to this point—a point at which both domestically and abroad he is seen as president who is weak and whose word is not fully trusted.
What is absent from the speech, however–indeed, revealing absent for a speech given to graduating West Point cadets–is any notion or appreciation of how a globally preeminent American military is key to deterring conflicts and keeping the peace more broadly. Instead, what we get is the president’s narrow account of when he would send the men and women of the US military into harm’s way–“when our core interests demand it.” This absence is revealing in that it subtly reaffirms the view that this is a president who is reluctant to use American power to help shape the world rather than react (often belatedly and with half-measures) to problems as they arise. In short, this is a president who does not understand “hard power’ sufficiently and not surprisingly, in turn, seems unperturbed that America’s military is being “deconstructed” on his watch.
At the speech’s start, the president states that the “United States is the one indispensable nation”—echoing former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright use of that phase in 1998. What is missing of course is the context for Secretary Albright’s point: the possible use of the US military against Iraq. As she said then, “If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future.” So while the words are the same, the strategic tune being whistled is not nearly the same.
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