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Obama’s West Point Realism

The president defends a George H.W. Bush foreign policy against George W. Bush critics.
President Obama West Point arrival

I watched President Barack Obama’s address to the graduating cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on Wednesday, then read and re-read the transcript of the speech that outlined his foreign policy doctrine. I was reminded of why I voted for him twice and not for his Republican presidential rivals.

Just imagine what the current situation would be if John McCain or Mitt Romney, not Obama, occupied the White House. My guess is that U.S. troops would still be engaged in combat in Iraq on the side of the theocratic and pro-Iran regime in Baghdad, and that the Republican president would have refrained from declaring, as Obama did on Wednesday, that U.S. forces Afghanistan would fall to zero at the end of 2016 even if the situation in that country remained unstable. And you don’t have to be a psychic to imagine President McCain reliving the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis as he sends an ultimatum to Iran to dispose of its nuclear program and U.S. aircraft carriers move towards the Strait of Hormuz. And then consider the image of President Romney, consulting with his neoconservative foreign policy aides (Robert Kagan? John Bolton?) and with former Vice President Dick Cheney on devising a strategy of “regime change” in Damascus, and working together with our Polish and Japanese allies in preparation for cold or hot wars with Russia and China.

Some critics of Obama’s foreign policy agenda assert that all the president has done by ending the U.S. military presences in Iraq and Afghanistan is prove that he is not George W. Bush. In a political system where two major political parties fight over control of policy, however, Obama is contrasting his vision of foreign policy and national security with that of a Republican opposition that still remains committed to the interventionist approach set by its neoconservative ideologues and many of its activists and donors. I don’t detect any major difference between the policies they are advocating and those pursued by W in his first term (recall that many of them criticized President Bush for being too “soft” on foreign policy during his second term). Just browse through the critique of Obama’s address in the editorial and op-ed pages of the neoconic Washington Post and Wall Street Journal and you can get an idea of what the majority of the Republican lawmakers and presidential contenders are thinking. They charge that “President Obama has retrenched U.S. global engagement in a way that has shaken the confidence of many U.S. allies and encouraged some adversaries” (WP), and that he “has somehow managed to combine the worst features of isolationism and multilateralism” (John Bolton in the WSJ).

One of the main criticisms of the president’s speech and policies has been that he was setting a “false choice” between direct military interventions and doing nothing in response to international crises. Hey, we are not calling for sending U.S. troops to Syria or Ukraine, contend the McCains of the world. We just think that Washington needs to “do something” to demonstrate its resolve and stand up to Assad, Putin, and the Ayatollahs.

But for McCain and his buddies in Congress and the media, “doing something” means taking steps that would almost inevitably lead to diplomatic and military escalation. Declaring a “no fly” zone by the United States and the “international community” in Syria would have triggered Syrian responses, like firing at American warplanes, that would have led eventually to direct military intervention in the civil war in Syria (which is exactly what happened in Libya). Similarly, challenging Russian annexation of Crimea by strengthening military ties with Ukraine would have made it impossible to de-escalate the crisis with Russia (which happened under Obama’s policies), while refusing to negotiate with Iran would have left Washington no choice but to consider the military option in dealing with Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

And then, of course, there are the suggestions—never made explicitly but implied in code words (“we need to pledge robust security commitment”)—that the United States should have maintained its military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan in order to prevent al-Qaeda and the Taliban from coming to power. This from the same guys who promoted the American invasion of Iraq, which in turn helped al-Qaeda expand its presence in Iraq and slowed down the military operations to fight it and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The neoconservatives and the Republican critics read opinion polls and recognize that a clear majority of the American people rejects their hyper-interventionist foreign policy approach. But they cannot criticize the voters, so they instead press the president to “do something” and project “leadership” in a way that would create the conditions for more regimes changes and more wars. And when he doesn’t buy their advice they bash him as a weak president who engages in, well, “appeasement.”

I have described President Obama in TAC in the past as a “Republican realist” and compared him to President George H.W. Bush. His West Point speech hasn’t changed my views. In fact, in his address and its anti-militarist tone and skepticism about global intervention, he sounded to me more like President Dwight Eisenhower, who also helped end another costly U.S-led war and resisted pressures to use military force in places like Hungary and Vietnam.

As I have pointed out in the past, Obama didn’t run for president as an antiwar candidate in the mode of Ralph Nader or Ron Paul. This explains why anti-interventionists on the political left and right have been critical of his policies like the intervention in Libya and the use of drones, not to mention the expansion of the national security state during his term in office. I certainly wasn’t impressed in particular with his call to engage in democracy promotion worldwide (assuming that he is serious about doing that).

But Rand Paul, who is supposedly trying to market himself as a sensible foreign policy realist, rejecting accusations that he is an “isolationist,” needs to explain if and in what ways he would respond to the crises in Syria, Iran, and Russia, differently than Obama. Ironically, he may have to prepare himself to run as an antiwar campaign against Hillary Clinton in 2016, just as Obama did in 2008.

Leon Hadar, senior analyst at Wikistrat, a geostrategic consulting group, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.



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