Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Thursday, May 24, 2018

WASHINGTON — By laying out a long-term foreign policy vision in a speech at West Point on Wednesday, President Obama challenged his critics, at home and abroad, not to speak in vague terms about American “decline” or “weakness” but to answer the question: Exactly what would you do differently?

This is as close as we have gotten to an Obama Doctrine, and here it is: 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.”

But in other cases, “when issues of global concern do not pose a direct threat to the United States … we should not go it alone.” Instead, Obama said, “we must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action” and “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 2008, Obama won his party’s nomination and the election as a pragmatic anti-war candidate specifically protesting our intervention in Iraq. He declared in 2002 that he was opposed not to all wars, but to “a dumb war.” It was clear on Wednesday that it remains a source of pride to him that he has brought what he called “a long season of war” to an end.

And he was unabashed in insisting that “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.”

Responding, perhaps in frustration, to a wave of reproach that has descended upon him because of his reluctance to use American military power, he offered this riposte: “Tough talk often draws headlines, but war rarely conforms to slogans.”

Here was Obama throwing down the gauntlet to his foes. His address should force a reckoning with a key issue: Americans, by all the evidence of the polls, are skeptical of military action abroad. They reached this point not because they have undergone some large philosophical or ideological conversion. Rather, they arrived at a practical judgment after the experience of two long wars that failed — particularly in the instance of Iraq — to produce the results their supporters promised. It was the same after Vietnam: Most Americans now have a much higher bar for when they would be willing to commit lives and treasure overseas.