As expected, Obama’s commencement speech at West Point contained very little new or interesting, rehashed many familiar boilerplate arguments about U.S. “leadership,” the “indispensable nation,” and American exceptionalism, and trotted out caricatures of opposing positions to use as foils for the rest of Obama’s remarks. If we judged it solely as a commencement address to West Point graduates, it would probably be viewed as a well-delivered but largely uninspired recitation of some basic liberal internationalist themes combined with a survey of current administration policies. Judged against the expectations that the White House set for the speech (a “broad vision,” the start of a new “foreign policy offensive”), it has to be considered a weak effort.
It will persuade no one that wasn’t already on board with the vast majority of what Obama has done, and that leaves a great many people unsatisfied. It was inevitable that hawkish critics would find nothing to like in the speech, since they were the main target, but this time even they have a point that Obama was arguing against positions that virtually no one holds. It seems that most people who heard the speech came away feeling underwhelmed. That’s not surprising, and I assumed that this is the reaction the speech would receive. As I said on Monday:
We can expect a speech that rehearses conventional consensus views about the U.S. role in the world and the need for “leadership.” Obama will probably try to refute his hawkish critics while endorsing most or all of their premises. I doubt that there will be anything in the speech that is either new or interesting, and I don’t see how it helps Obama politically or in any other way.
That seems to be almost exactly the speech that we heard this morning, and I still don’t understand what Obama was hoping to achieve by giving it.