President Obama showcased a "retooled" vision of U.S. power projection in the world at a West Point commencement address today. Taken at face value there is much for pacifists and critics of recent U.S. use of force to like in what the president told the class of 2014. His speech included a strong rejection of U.S. isolationism in this technologically and economically integrated world, but promoted a new restraint in the use of America's unchallenged military might. He issued a strong defense of "soft power" alternatives and a multilateral approach to conflict resolution through the use of international institutions such as the United Nations. According to the president, such efforts have so far proved useful in deterring further Russian aggression in Ukraine, in bringing Iran back, peacefully, to the table for negotiations to end its nuclear ambitions and would likely prove fruitful in resolving current tensions in the South China seas.
"To say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution," President Obama told the cadets. "Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint, but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences—without building international support and legitimacy for our action; without leveling with the American people about the sacrifices required. Tough talk often draws headlines, but war rarely conforms to slogans. As General Eisenhower, someone with hard-earned knowledge on this subject, said at this ceremony in 1947: "War is mankind’s most tragic and stupid folly; to seek or advise its deliberate provocation is a black crime against all men.'"
He added, "I would betray my duty to you and to the country we love if I ever sent you into harm’s way simply because I saw a problem somewhere in the world that needed to be fixed, or because I was worried about critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak.
"Here’s my bottom line: America must always lead on the world stage. If we don’t, no one else will. The military that you have joined is and always will be the backbone of that leadership. But U.S. military action cannot be the only—or even primary—component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail. And because the costs associated with military action are so high, you should expect every civilian leader—and especially your Commander-in-Chief—to be clear about how that awesome power should be used."
Of course, this is the same president, who, in recent years tolerated NSA intrusions on privacy, continuing operations at GITMO and doubled down on the use of drone strikes to remove America's alleged enemies—and anyone unfortunate enough to be standing near them. Indeed the president noted that he intended to continue to deploy U.S. forces in "capture operations" or through drone strikes when forewarned with "actionable intelligence."
"But...in taking direct action we must uphold standards that reflect our values," he said. "That means taking strikes only when we face a continuing, imminent threat, and only where...there is near certainty of no civilian casualties. For our actions should meet a simple test: We must not create more enemies than we take off the battlefield."
The president, suggesting that the United States continues to lead economically and diplomatically all over the world, said that "when a typhoon hits the Philippines, or schoolgirls are kidnapped in Nigeria, or masked men occupy a building in Ukraine, it is America that the world looks to for help. So the United States is and remains the one indispensable nation. That has been true for the century passed and it will be true for the century to come."
But this indispensable nation will face new kinds of threats and challenges, according to the president. "We know all too well, after 9/11, just how technology and globalization has put power once reserved for states in the hands of individuals, raising the capacity of terrorists to do harm. Russia’s aggression toward former Soviet states unnerves capitals in Europe, while China’s economic rise and military reach worries its neighbors. From Brazil to India, rising middle classes compete with us, and governments seek a greater say in global forums. And even as developing nations embrace democracy and market economies, 24-hour news and social media makes it impossible to ignore the continuation of sectarian conflicts and failing states and popular uprisings that might have received only passing notice a generation ago."
He told the cadets, "It will be your generation’s task to respond to this new world. The question we face, the question each of you will face, is not whether America will lead, but how we will lead—not just to secure our peace and prosperity, but also extend peace and prosperity around the globe."
It will be some time before evidence of the practical ramifications of his West Point rhetoric show up in use of force decisions. And those who support the emerging notion of a multilateral "responsibility to protect" may be concerned that this West Point address indicates a shift away from U.S. deployments aimed at protecting noncombatants in simmering conflicts in nations like South Sudan and the Central African Republic, though the president stressed that use of force in defense of human dignity would remain a defensible option.
The president described the use of force in Afghanistan broadly as successful, adding in a line greeted with applause by the cadets, "at the end of this year, a new Afghan President will be in office and America’s combat mission will be over." He said stepping away from a possible U.S. intervention in the "frustrating" conflict in Syria was the right decision, even though it meant that "terrible suffering" there continued. "But that does not mean we shouldn’t help the Syrian people stand up against a dictator who bombs and starves his own people," he added. "And in helping those who fight for the right of all Syrians to choose their own future, we are also pushing back against the growing number of extremists who find safe haven in the chaos." He annouced a commitment of additiona resources toward resolving the Syrian crisis. "We will step up our efforts to support Syria’s neighbors—Jordan and Lebanon; Turkey and Iraq—as they contend with refugees and confront terrorists working across Syria’s borders." He added, "I will work with Congress to ramp up support for those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists and brutal dictators."
Acknowledging the sacrifice of 2.5 million Americans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, the president told West Point's graduates, "This is a particularly useful time for America to reflect on those who have sacrificed so much for our freedom, a few days after Memorial Day. You are the first class to graduate since 9/11 who may not be sent into combat in Iraq or Afghanistan. When I first spoke at West Point in 2009, we still had more than 100,000 troops in Iraq. We were preparing to surge in Afghanistan. Our counterterrorism efforts were focused on al Qaeda’s core leadership—those who had carried out the 9/11 attacks. And our nation was just beginning a long climb out of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
"Four and a half years later, as you graduate, the landscape has changed. We have removed our troops from Iraq. We are winding down our war in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda’s leadership on the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been decimated, and Osama bin Laden is no more. And through it all, we’ve refocused our investments in what has always been a key source of American strength: a growing economy that can provide opportunity for everybody who’s willing to work hard and take responsibility here at home."
The president said his administration would judge use of force based on the directness of the threat, a preference for on international and multilater partnerships against terrorism, when the use of force is consistent with U.S. values and finally when it is an act in defense of human dignity.
"The United States will use military force, unilaterally if necessary," he said, "when our core interests demand it—when our people are threatened, when our livelihoods are at stake, when the security of our allies is in danger. In these circumstances, we still need to ask tough questions about whether our actions are proportional and effective and just. International opinion matters, but America should never ask permission to protect our people, our homeland, or our way of life.
For issues "of global concern," that are not a direct threat, however, "when crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction but do not directly threaten us," he said, "The threshold for military action must be higher.
"In such circumstances, we should not go it alone. Instead, we must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action. We have to broaden our tools to include diplomacy and development; sanctions and isolation; appeals to international law; and, if just, necessary and effective, multilateral military action. In such circumstances, we have to work with others because collective action in these circumstances is more likely to succeed, more likely to be sustained, less likely to lead to costly mistakes.
According to the president, "the most direct threat to America at home and abroad remains terrorism." But a strategy "that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naïve and unsustainable," he said. He called for a shift in U.S. counter-terrorism strategy to confront a more diffuse, "decentralized" al Qaeda affiliates and extremists through a more effective partnership with countries "where terrorist networks seek a foothold."
"We need partners to fight terrorists alongside us," President Obama said. "And empowering partners is a large part of what we have done and what we are currently doing in Afghanistan."
In final comments that were frequently interrupted by the applause of the West Point cadets, the president called for transparency and consistency with the rule of law in decisions on the use of force. "American influence is always stronger when we lead by example," he said. "We can’t exempt ourselves from the rules that apply to everybody else. We can’t call on others to make commitments to combat climate change if a whole lot of our political leaders deny that it’s taking place.... I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being. But what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it is our willingness to affirm them through our actions. And that’s why I will continue to push to close Gitmo—because American values and legal traditions do not permit the indefinite detention of people beyond our borders. That’s why we’re putting in place new restrictions on how America collects and uses intelligence—because we will have fewer partners and be less effective if a perception takes hold that we’re conducting surveillance against ordinary citizens."
He said the final element of American world leadership was "our willingness to act on behalf of human dignity.
"America’s support for democracy and human rights goes beyond idealism—it is a matter of national security. Democracies are our closest friends and are far less likely to go to war. Economies based on free and open markets perform better and become markets for our goods. Respect for human rights is an antidote to instability and the grievances that fuel violence and terror."