Barack Obama's long-anticipated speech on Wednesday at West Point, the US Military Academy, was designed to answer a growing number of domestic critics of his foreign policy, who believe he is not doing enough to advance American interests around the world. It was also intended to push back against the growing tide of isolationism in a country preoccupied with domestic challenges and disillusioned with the results of long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the address was meant to reassure America's friends around the world.
Not surprisingly so ambitious a speech, aimed at so many audiences, failed to meet any, much less all, of its goals.
A big part of the problem resulted from a speech that told us more about what the president opposed than what he favoured. He is against too much military intervention, but he is also against too little of it. America must avoid choosing between realism and idealism in its global conduct. It must be multilateral, except when it must act alone. All arguably true, but such generalities are more fitting for someone starting out in office than for an incumbent in his sixth year.
It did not help that, one day before the speech, Mr Obama laid out his new policy toward Afghanistan. US military forces are to come down to just below 10,000 by the end of this year, and to be removed entirely a month before he leaves office in early 2017. But this is a calendar-based policy, not one determined by conditions. It is an exit without a strategy, one that increases the odds the new Afghan government will struggle – much as has happened in Iraq in the aftermath of the complete US military departure from that country.