What should America do in the world, to the world, for the world, about the world?
President Obama gave the latest version of his answer to those questions in the commencement address to the West Point graduating class last week. (Full text here.)
Nothing in the speech was terribly surprising. America remains militarily strong, Obama said — in some ways, compared to its leading rivals, stronger than ever. But, at least under this president, it will use military force reluctantly, sparingly, selectively.
This paragraph from the speech is probably the best, and certainly the most colorful summary of this version of the Obama Doctrine:
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.
Here’s a shocker: The righty commentariat hated the speech. They divided between those who felt Obama was advertising and bragging about exactly the kind of fecklessness they’ve been ripping him about for five years, and those, like, for example, Charles Krauthammer, who called the speech “empty.”
Krauthammer hit hard on the argument that Obama had constructed a set of straw men in which the world consisted of pacifists, who think nothing is worth fighting for, and militarists who want to invade every country that annoys them. Creating that spectrum of war-mongers and isolationists conveniently left Obama as the reasonable man in the middle, willing to use force, but only when necessary.
In reality, Krauthammer argued, nobody is calling for U.S. “boots on the ground” in Syria, and nobody is calling for an American withdrawal from the world.
There is some rough justice in Krauthammer’s reaction. Obama did use the speech to make himself look like the occupant of the reasonable middle. In truth, by recent U.S. standards, Obama’s ability to get through five-plus years of a presidency without starting a new war, a shock and awe bombing campaign or a CIA overthrow of a foreign government makes him look like a raging peacenik, (notwithstanding his continuing use of drone warfare, his success in degrading Al Qaida and his “surge” policy in Afghanistan).
What Obama didn’t say
On the other hand, Obama Derangement Syndrome caused Krauthammer to hear things that Obama didn’t say.
Obama didn’t say that anyone is advocating for U.S. “boots on the ground” in Syria, nor that anyone was arguing for U.S. withdrawal from the world. If you look at how Obama actually described those who think he should use the military more and those who think he should stay out of more conflicts, his descriptions are much more accurate than the imaginary ones that Krauthammer mocked. Here’s how Obama framed it:
Today, according to self-described realists, conflicts in Syria or Ukraine or the Central African Republic are not ours to solve. And not surprisingly, after costly wars and continuing challenges here at home, that view is shared by many Americans.
A different view, from interventionists from the left and right, says that we ignore these conflicts at our own peril, that America’s willingness to apply force around the world is the ultimate safeguard against chaos, and America’s failure to act in the face of Syrian brutality or Russian provocations not only violates our conscience, but invites escalating aggression in the future.
Surely Krauthammer wouldn’t deny that some say the trouble in Syria and Ukraine “are not ours to solve,” nor that some — including most of Krauthammer’s fellow travelers — do indeed suggest constantly that Obama’s “failure to act in the face of Syrian brutality or Russian provocation… invites escalating aggression in the future.” In fact, isn’t that pretty much their main criticism of Obama’s foreign policy?
The American sheriff
But the real righty argument against Obamaism in foreign policy was written in advance of the speech.
In the New Republic (for which he is a “contributing editor”), neoconservative intellectual Robert Kagan lays out generalized case for America to do more — almost irrespective of its own interests — to maintain world order by strengthening good guys and weakening bad guys — and by making sure that bad guys know that if they get too far out of line, the American sheriff will gun them down at high noon.
If that seems incredibly vague, as if it obligates the United States to be constantly at war for ambiguous purposes that might have little to do with its own concrete interests, here’s a paragraph from the Kagan piece that show it is precisely that:
World order maintenance requires operating in the gray areas between victory and defeat. The measure of success is often not how wonderful the end result is, but whether the unsatisfying end result is better or worse than the outcome if there had been no action. To insist on outcomes that always achieve maximum ends at minimal cost is yet another form of escapism.
Don’t click this link to the full Kagan piece unless you have a few minutes. Kagan’s argument is long, slow, theoretical and goes back to at least the 19th century to create a historical context for an argument that, in the 21st century, America must use its power — and certainly that includes military power — around the world or things will fall apart.
In other words, the world needs for the United States to flex its muscles periodically without necessarily waiting for a situation that fits the normal rhetoric about a threat to its “vital interests” and all that jazz. Sometime during the 19th or 20th century, America learned the advisability of getting into wars early and often. The United States adopted, Kagan says:
A new military strategy aimed to discourage would-be aggressors before they became aggressors, or as [Theodore] Roosevelt put it, to “end future wars by stepping on their necks before they grow up.”
But this lesson, Kagan worries, is being “unlearned” by Americans who have grown weary of policing the world. In the 1950s and ‘60s, America “fought in costly wars in Korea and Vietnam, with uncertain and unsatisfying results,” Kagan said, which left us dangerously reluctant to play sheriff.
He cites with alarm a recent Pew Poll that found that “more than 50 percent of Americans today believe that the United States ‘should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own’ — the highest number ever recorded since Pew started asking the question 50 years ago.”
Personally I would say that the United States, even under Obama, is more entangled with the rest of the world than any other country. By any fair reckoning, it gets into more wars and lesser military actions — by a wide margin — than whoever comes in second. But the drift seems downright isolationistic to Kagan, who wrote that:
Unless Americans can be led back to an understanding of their enlightened self-interest, to see again how their fate is entangled with that of the world, then the prospects for a peaceful twenty-first century in which Americans and American principles can thrive will be bleak.
Kaganism, which is neoconservatism, is pretty much the opposite of Obamaism. Obama has said for years that his hope and plan was to wind down the two wars he inherited from President George W. Bush and try to avoiding starting a new one. It looks to me like he is on his way to fulfilling that goal.
Haunted by deaths
When he talked to the West Point cadets about the fact four young soldiers, who were in the audience a year ago when Obama had announced the troop surge in Afghanistan, had died in that operation, Obama underscored his determination to use troops only when necessary:
I believe America’s security demanded those deployments. But I am haunted by those deaths. I am haunted by those wounds. And I would betray my duty to you, and to the country we love, if I sent you into harm’s way simply because I saw a problem somewhere in the world that needed fixing, or because I was worried about critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak.
I confess I’m with Obama in spirit here. Lethal force should be a last resort. Obama also made clear his feeling that every time the United States kills people abroad, they plant seeds of anti-American hatred that could lead to future wars.
But Kagan, unless I’m misreading his doctrine, thinks America and the world benefit from frequent demonstrations that the United States is on the bad guy beat.
David Brooks, in a New York Times column that called Kagan’s piece “brilliant,” also celebrated the happier days “in the 1990s, for example, [when] President George H.W. Bush and President Clinton took military action roughly every 17 months to restrain dictators, spread democracy and preserve international norms.” Brooks referred to it as “forward-leaning interventionist garden-tending.”
Brooks should find a better metaphor for war than “garden-tending.” We are talking about bombing and blood, killing by the thousands and hundreds of thousands and invading and overthrowing. We are talking about one nation, because it is the world’s most powerful, arrogating to itself the decision of whom is fit to govern other smaller nations.
Those decisions, by the way, are inevitably mixed with the superpower’s self-interest, including economic, material, corporate interests. The obsession of the United States with Iraq and Iran cannot be separated from the oil. The United States was friendly with Saddam Hussein — who had already established himself as one of the world’s most brutal dictators — as recently as the 1980s. The United States is apoplectic over the ayatollaocracy that runs Iran, but the United States overthrew the only democratically elected leader Iran ever had (Mohammed Mossadegh).
Barack Obama became the Democratic presidential nominee in 2008, to some extent, because he was the only one among the leading candidates who had opposed the Iraq war in advance.
Justifying war in Iraq
One reason it is vital to bring the Iraq war into the discussion of the Obama West Point speech and especially of the Kagan “prebuttal” is that Kagan was one of the co-founders and leaders of the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), which is best known for advocating and justifying the decision to launch a U.S. war against Iraq.
The launching of that war and the fall of Saddam Hussein were the high moments of the “neoconservative” creed that Kagan and PNAC helped make famous.
But the aftermath of Saddam’s fall, the failure to find the promised Weapons of Mass Destruction that had been used to justify the war (even though U.N. inspectors pretty much knew there were no weapons), the long, bloody years of occupation (in contrast to the euphoric “candy and flowers” greeting that had been promised), the civil war, and the subsequent descent of Iraq into the thugocracy and kleptocracy all cast doubt on the clarity of the neocon vision and the advisability of the neocon prescription.
I found the tone of Kagan’s long New Republic essay very reasonable, bordering on humble, occasionally pulling back from statements that would have been overreaches, occasionally acknowledging facts and arguments that undermined his overall point.
But apart from my instinctive opposition to unnecessary warfare, I have trouble taking his overview seriously unless and until he takes the latest big example of a “war of choice” that went badly — the Iraq war with which he and his fellow travelers are so closely associated — and puts it on the table and fits it into his overall argument.
The closest I found in his long piece was this:
The long interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan certainly played a part in undermining American support, not just for wars but for the grand strategy that led to those wars.
True that, most definitely with respect to Iraq. But if he wants Americans to get on board with the idea that a garden-tending, world-order maintenance mission every couple of years is a good thing, he needs to deal directly with the most recent case that turned out not to be such a great idea, or does he think it was?