War and the President

During a commencement address at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on May 28, President Obama continued to make his public case for a new role for American power abroad. At first blush, there is much for critics of recent U.S. military action to appreciate in the president’s remarks. His speech included a strong rejection of U.S. isolationism in a technologically and economically integrated world, but promoted new restraint in the use of America’s military might. He issued a strong defense of “soft power” alternatives and a multilateral approach to conflict resolution through engagement with international institutions like the United Nations.

Unfortunately, the president did not address how drone warfare fits into his new, scaled-back vision of U.S. power, a topic he explored in more detail in a speech on counterterrorism at the National Defense University in May 2013. Perhaps he considers such limited extensions of U.S. force too minor to feature in “big picture” pondering of military actions.

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According to the president, the new approach employed by the United States has so far proved useful in deterring further Russian aggression in Ukraine and bringing Iran back, peacefully, to the table for negotiations to end its nuclear ambitions. It could also prove fruitful in resolving current tensions in the South China Sea. “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. This is a point that very few foreign policy analysts will dispute. Not many people argued for providing boots-on-the-ground military support to the rebels in Syria, and even fewer have called for direct U.S. military intervention in Ukraine. In our war-weary world, the president’s case for a reduced role for the U.S. military has a receptive audience.

There are those, however, who argue that the United States cannot shirk its responsibilities as a superpower. Included in this number are not just foreign policy hawks but supporters of the emerging doctrine of the responsibility to protect, or R2P. Proponents of this doctrine, which mandates an international response when a state fails to protect its citizens from serious and widespread harm, may be concerned that the president’s 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. The president said that the United States “will use military force, unilaterally if necessary, 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.” These scenarios do not seem to include preventing genocide or crimes against humanity, a cause close to the heart of some of the president’s advisers.

Mr. Obama characterizes “core interests” as those situations that directly affect Americans and U.S. allies. But is it in the interest of the United States to prevent or stop genocide, to risk lives and treasure to protect the lives of innocent people even in a faraway land? The president’s remarks did not adequately explore these questions and seem, at points, to contradict what he has said on other occasions. Just six months ago, the president argued: “Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act.” The president’s inconsistency may be explained by the hard case of Syria, a human rights disaster that still weighs on the conscience of the international community. Whether more aggressive intervention in Syria could have forestalled the country’s spiral into bloody civil war is a question that still divides many observers, including America’s editorial board. Any determination of the proper use and limits of U.S. power must reckon with these events.

The president’s willingness to think hard about the use of force and to work with international institutions is laudable. Less praiseworthy is his continued insistence, at West Point and elsewhere, that the United States remains an “indispensable nation.” Such talk has fueled military misadventures in the past, and could do so again in the future. The president’s support of transparency and consistency with the rule of law, both of which received hearty cheers at West Point, could serve as a necessary corrective to the temptations of exceptionalism. He reaffirmed, again, his intention to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay and place restrictions on “how America collects and uses intelligence.” He should add to that list a more transparent accounting of the use of drones. Until these concerns are addressed, Mr. Obama’s words at West Point may have made for a nice graduation speech, but not much more.

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