President Barack Obama Wednesday offered the clearest view so far of his progressive-style national security strategy, when he told graduating cadets that the U.S. will be stronger if it entangles itself in a net of international organizations and treaties.
Institutions such as the World Bank and the United Nations should be strengthened, he said. “Evolving these institutions to meet the demands of today must be a critical part of American leadership,” he said.
And the United States will gain by relying on these international groups, he said. “We can’t call on others to make commitments to combat climate change if so many of our political leaders deny that it is taking place. It’s a lot harder to call on China to resolve its maritime disputes under the Law of the Sea Convention when the United States Senate has refused to ratify it,” he claimed, according to the White House transcript.
“That’s not leadership; that’s retreat. That’s not strength; that’s weakness,” he insisted.
The deference to international norms also requires the closure of the prison on Guantanamo and curbs on intelligence gathering, he said.
Yet Obama’s rhetoric suggested — perhaps inadvertently — that any U.S. reliance on international groups is unique.
“I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being,” Obama told the graduating class the U.S. Army’s college in West Point. “But what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it’s our willingness to affirm them through our actions,” he declared.
Obama’s speech also downplayed his foreign policy failures.
They include the chaos in Libya and Syria, the al-Qaida counteroffensive in Iraq after the U.S. withdrawal in 2010, the failure to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan since 2009, and his failure to deter the slow-motion Russian invasion of Ukraine or the slow-motion Chinese advances into oceanic areas held by its neighbors or its large-scale theft of commercial products via cyberspace hacking.
Throughout his speech, Obama played up alternatives to force.
“We should not go it alone,” he said. “Instead, we must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action … [via] diplomacy and development; sanctions and isolation; appeals to international law and — if just, necessary, and effective — multilateral military action.”
“For the first time in a decade, we have a very real chance of achieving a breakthrough [nuclear] agreement [with Iran] — one that is more effective and durable than what would be achieved through the use of force,” he said.
Drone strikes should be used “only when we face a continuing, imminent threat, and only where there is near certainty of no civilian casualties,” he said.
“We must shift our counter-terrorism strategy — drawing on the successes and shortcomings of our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan — to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold,” he said.
To push that minimalist strategy, Obama also announced he would ask Congress for $5 billion to help train local militaries, instead of providing them with U.S. military support.
“I am calling on Congress to support a new Counter-Terrorism Partnerships Fund of up to $5 billion, which will allow us to train, build capacity, and facilitate partner countries on the front lines,” he said.
The money can be used “to fulfill different missions, including training security forces in Yemen who have gone on the offensive against al-Qaida; supporting a multinational force to keep the peace in Somalia; working with European allies to train a functioning security force and border patrol in Libya; and facilitating French operations in Mali,” he said.
Obama also called for U.S. military spending to be redirected to civilian programs. After withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, he said, “we have refocused our investments in a key source of American strength: a growing economy that can provide opportunity here at home,” he said.
Obama also suggested that his national security strategy would push progressive social priorities, such as “tolerance.”
“I believe that a world of greater freedom and tolerance is not only a moral imperative — it also helps keep us safe,” he said.
So far, that tolerance agenda has largely focused on promoting the legal and social status of gays in countries such as Russia and Uganda.
“American leadership also requires us to see the world as it should be — a place where the aspirations of individual human beings matter; where hopes and not just fears govern; where the truths written into our founding documents can steer the currents of history in the direction of justice,” he said.
Throughout his speech, Obama declined to recognize the jihadi ideology that has powered numerous attacks against Americans and allies for the last 20 years. Instead, he labeled the jihadis — including Boko Haram in Nigeria — as merely extremists.
In fact, he even excluded that ideology from his brief description of the post-9/11 campaign against jihadis in Afghanistan and Iraq, which he passively described as “a long season of war.”
That’s a huge contrast from the Cold War, when U.S. presidents named and shamed Communist ideas and Communist supporters worldwide — until Soviet communism collapsed in 1989.
But Obama also suggested that educators — not the military nor the private sector — might play a leading role in fighting that jihadi ideology. “Tragically, no American security operation can eradicate the threat posed by an extremist group like Boko Haram … [so] we must focus both on rescuing those girls, but also on supporting Nigerian efforts to educate its youth,” he said.