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Richard Falk: Obama and Hubris at West Point

June 11, 2014

Rejecting mindless militarism won't be the end of ultranationalism.

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Obama delivered the 2014 commencement address at West Point Military Academy
Image: Time

By Richard Falk
By arrangement with Richard Falk

So the United States is and remains the one indispensable nation. That has been true for the century past, and it will be for the century to come… The question we face… is not whether America will lead but how we will lead, not just to secure our peace and prosperity but also to extend peace and prosperity around the globe.

—President Barack Obama’s Commencement Address, West Point, May 22, 2014

I make the poem of evil also, I commemorate that part also, I am myself just as evil as good, and my nation is…

—Walt Whitman

Cautioning against militarism at West Point on May 22nd President Obama in a speech mostly notable for its reassertion of what might be best understood as imperial nationalism of global scope declared the following: “Just because we have the best hammer [military dominance] does not mean that every problem is a nail [that is, we must be selective].” Remembering the failure of military intervention in Iraq, positive about achieving a possible diplomatic breakthrough in Iran, and burned by the paucity of results from his strongly endorsed troop surge in Afghanistan early in his presidency, Obama is reminding the graduating cadets, the future commanders of the American military organization, that leadership on the global stage should no longer be conceived as nothing more than a hard power geopolitical game. Interpreted in context, such a statement can and should be appreciated as an embrace of what some call ‘smart power’ shaping policy by a careful understanding of what will work and what will fail, that is, exhibiting a sensitivity to the limits as well as the role of military power in pursuing the American foreign policy agenda.

Republicans bark more often than they bite, while Democrats do the opposite.

For the wildly hostile Republicans such language is warped to justify their attack on Obama’s foreign policy as wimpy, exhibiting a declinist mentality that is partially admitted by the sleazy phrase used by the White House during the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya, ‘leading from behind.’ The Republicans, resorting to their typically irresponsible hawkish opposition rhetoric, chided Obama for not proceeding to bomb Syria after alleging that they had crossed the red line in 2013 when chemical weapons were used in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta resulting in heavy civilian loss of life. From such neocon perspectives America only loses wars when is loses its nerve. From this perspective every failure of military intervention since Vietnam exhibits not the limits of hard power, but the refusal to do what it takes to achieve victory by which is meant a mixture of weaponry and fortitude. Fortunately, most often when in office the Republicans have a record of finishing the wars that Democrats start. This was what Eisenhower did in the Korean War, and Nixon in the Vietnam War. Republicans bark more often than they bite, while Democrats do the opposite.

Obama’s rejection of mindless militarism is most welcome, but insufficient. Given this American record of demoralizing defeats, those on the right end of the political spectrum should feel reassured by his ultra-nationalist language used to describe America’s global dominance: “Our military has no peer. America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world… our economy remains the most dynamic on Earth… Each year we grow more energy independent. From Europe to Asia, we are the hub of alliances unrivaled in the history of nations.” Recalling the oft-quoted boast of Madeline Albright, Obama went on to insist, “So the United States is and remains the one indispensable nation. That has been true for the century past, and it will be true for the century to come.”

To exhibit national pride is understandable for a political leader, but the absence of any expression of national humility creates an overwhelming and deeply troubling impression of hubris, especially when the speaker heads the biggest military power in history and his country has its forces spread around the world so as to be ready to strike anywhere. We should be aware that for ancient Greeks hubris was a tragic flaw that makes the powerful complacent about their points of vulnerability and hence destined to freefall from dizzying heights to swampy depths. Such an interpretation is reinforced by Obama’s vision of the place of war making in American foreign policy: “The United States will use force, unilaterally, if necessary, when our people are threatened, when our livelihoods are at stake; when the security of our allies is in danger.” What is so stunning here is the absence of any even pro forma acknowledgement of a national commitment to carry out foreign policy in a manner respectful of international law and the authority of the United Nations. Deeply disturbing is Obama’s contention that war might be the appropriate way to go if “our livelihoods are at stake,” which seems to revive the dreams of economic imperialists who seize resources and safeguard unjust enrichment from foreign resources.

Should America never ask: is that true for others, for, say, Russia when it protects its homeland and way of life in Ukraine?

With words that echo those of George W. Bush, Obama admits that “[i]nternational opinion matters, but America should never ask permission to protect our homeland and our way of life.” Should America never ask: is that true for others, for, say, Russia when it protects its homeland and way of life in Ukraine? To be fair, Obama does seem to qualify his unilateralism by saying that before leaping into war “we still need to ask tough questions about whether our actions are proportional and effective and just,” but these lofty sentiments are coupled with the glaring omission of the words “and legal.” Obama does advocate “appeals to international law” in the speech, but revealing only as one of several tools of American diplomacy that might be useful in mobilizing allies to join in multilateral recourse to military action against common adversaries.

Toward the end of the speech Obama removes any ambiguity about the kind of prideful realism that he appropriates for the United States, and implicitly disallows to others, acknowledging lofty pretensions on a truly global scale: “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being. But what makes us exceptional in not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it is our willingness to affirm them through our actions.” Are we stupid? After lauding militarism and unilateralism early in the speech only later to give this Wilsonian spin to the more self-serving meaning of American exceptionalisn the Obama language exhibits a disturbing blend of confusion and hypocrisy. Even the slightest familiarity with America’s use of force in international life over the course of recent decades, including during the Obama presidency, would lead any close observer to conclude that the only honest way to identify American exceptionalism is above all its “ability to flout international norms and the rule of law.” And not only ability, willingness as well, whenever expedient (consider global surveillance, drone warfare) from the perspective of national interests to engage in combat.

As always there is in Obama’s comprehensive statements some visionary language meant to be uplifting. For instance, what he describes as the “final element in American leadership: our willingness to act on behalf of human dignity.” Where exactly? In response to the oppressive rulership of Sisi’s Egypt? In relation to the civilian population of Gaza so long victimized by Israeli collective punishment? The only plausible answer to the first of these questions is ‘where and when it suits American interests, and not otherwise.’ In fairness, could be expect otherwise in a state-centric world.

And then with hypnotic indifference to the tension between words and deeds, Obama explains, “so we have not cut off (military assistance to) the new government, but we can and will persistently press for reforms that the Egyptian people have demanded.”

There is an awkward reference in the speech to Egypt that makes a mockery of any talk about human dignity and a foreign policy responsive to the claims of justice. Obama employs a strange phrase, perhaps to convey the sense of awkwardness, by starting his explanation of policy with the words “in countries like Egypt.” Such a phrase implies that there are other such countries, which itself seems dubious. We do not receive any hints as to which countries he means to include. Possibly Obama is referring to all those states with deplorable human rights records whose leaders are guilty of crimes against humanity in relation to their own citizens, but whose orientation is favorable to the West. Obama goes on to imply some misgivings about the positive American relationship with Egypt, “we acknowledge that our relationship is anchored in security interests, from peace treaties to Israel to shared efforts against violent extremism.” And then with hypnotic indifference to the tension between words and deeds, he explains, “[s]o we have not cut off cooperation [read as military assistance] with the new government, but we can and will persistently press for reforms that the Egyptian people have demanded.” How should we deconstruct this combination of reassurances and pressures to establish democracy, the rule of law, and human rights? I would say to paraphrase Obama that this strikes me as a callous example of ‘following from behind.’

On such other issues as terrorism, drones, Iran, Syria, and Ukraine Obama affirms mainstream foreign policy positions with nothing new, not daring to endorse any initiative that would break fresh ground. There were some obvious opportunities that would have created a bit of credibility for the basic claim made by Obama that America, and America alone was capable of providing the world with benevolent leadership. Surely, Obama could have proposed that Iran join in an effort to end the war-threatening atmosphere relating to Syria and in view of Western objections to Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Or suggest that Israel’s refusal to stop settlement expansion in the West Bank and Jerusalem had doomed, once and for all, any hope of a negotiated and just end to the search for peace in Palestine and Israel that would benefit both peoples instead of voicing mild disapproval and stepping to one side. Or welcome the formation of a unity government that could finally represent the Palestinian people as a whole. Or recognize the complexity of competing national claims in Ukraine, acknowledging that the West as well as Russia was responsible for escalating tensions, thereby inhibiting prospects for a mutually beneficial accommodation. Or Obama might even have chosen such a moment to revive his 2009 Prague initiative by proposing that the time had come to table a draft treaty of nuclear disarmament.

Such innovative steps would have stirred excitement as well as compromise, controversy, and debate. Such moves would have at least encouraged the hope that Obama’s vision of American leadership meant something for the world beyond a watered down neoconservative global agenda. To be sure, it is less belligerent in language and policy than what was being advocated during the Bush presidency. The Obama outlook is certainly more receptive to partnership, alliances, and multilateralism in managing global affairs. Ironically, the Obama conception of American leadership is depressingly similar in some of its essential features to the commencement address given by George W. Bush at West Point twelve years earlier: We were good, they are evil. Terrorism is the main security threat. We will act as we wish when our security and vital interests are at stake. No signs of deference to international law or the U.N. unless it reinforces American foreign policy. When American policies are challenged, it is up to the political leadership to decide what is right and wrong, but governments that are adversaries of the West should continue to be judged and punished by international procedures, including the International Criminal Court. No humility, and no retreat from the global projection of force as an American entitlement that others welcome.

Perhaps, after all Hilary Clinton was right when she taunted Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign: “If you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen.” To clarify, not the heat that Clinton meant, but the heat that would be generated if Obama made a serious attempt in these last years of his presidency to translate his visionary language into concrete policies that addressed injustices and disciplined American foreign policy choices by an acceptance of the authority of international law and the U.N. One can only daydream about such a legacy for the presidency of Barack Obama. Instead rather than the legacy of forbearance that he seems determined to leave behind, summarized by his own self-professed operating logic—‘don’t do stupid stuff.’

Richard Falk is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for forty years. Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.

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