from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

The West Point Speech, Rethought

June 24, 2014

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

More on:

United States

Diplomacy and International Institutions

President Obama’s West Point speech on May 28 was an important statement of his foreign policy views. Re-reading it, I was struck by an echo.

Take a look:

When I first spoke at West Point in 2009, we still had more than 100,000 troops in Iraq. We were preparing to surge in Afghanistan.

[L]et us resolve that never again will we send the precious young blood of this country to die trying to prop up a corrupt military dictatorship abroad.

Our counterterrorism efforts were focused on al-Qaida’s core leadership -- those who had carried out the 9/11 attacks. And our nation was just beginning a long climb out of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Four and a half years later, as you graduate, the landscape has changed. We have removed our troops from Iraq. We are winding down our war in Afghanistan. Al-Qaida’s leadership on the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been decimated, and Osama bin Laden is no more. (Cheers, applause.) And through it all, we’ve refocused our investments in what has always been a key source of American strength: a growing economy that can provide opportunity for everybody who’s willing to work hard and take responsibility here at home.

 National security includes schools for our children as well as silos for our missiles.

 It includes the health of our families as much as the size of our bombs, the safety of our streets, and the condition of our cities, and not just the engines of war.

 ….So while protecting ourselves abroad, let us form a more perfect union here at home.

In fact, by most measures America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world. Those who argue otherwise -- who suggest that America is in decline or has seen its global leadership slip away -- are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics.

Think about it. Our military has no peer. The odds of a direct threat against us by any nation are low, and do not come close to the dangers we faced during the Cold War.

Now, it is necessary in an age of nuclear power and hostile forces that we’ll be militarily strong. America must never become a second-rate  nation. …

The question we face, the question each of you will face, is not whether America will lead but how we will lead, not just to secure our peace and prosperity but also extend peace and prosperity around the globe….

But 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. Since World War II, 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, without building international support and legitimacy for our action, without leveling with the American people about the sacrifices required.

This is also the time to turn away from excessive preoccupation overseas to the rebuilding of our own nation. America must be restored to a proper role in the world. But we can do that only through the recovery of confidence in ourselves.

Tough talk often draws headlines, but war rarely conforms to slogans. As General Eisenhower, someone with hard-earned knowledge on this subject, said at this ceremony in 1947, “War is mankind’s most tragic and stupid folly; to seek or advise its deliberate provocation is a black crime against all men.”….

 We must now show that peace and prosperity can exist side by side. Indeed, each now depends on the existence of the other. National strength includes the credibility of our system in the eyes of our own people as well as the credibility of our deterrent in the eyes of others abroad.

That spirit of cooperation needs to energize the global effort to combat climate change, a creeping national security crisis that will help shape your time in uniform, as we are called on to respond to refugee flows and natural disasters, and conflicts over water and food, which is why, next year, I intend to make sure America is out front in putting together a global framework to preserve our planet.

 I believe that the greatest contribution America can now make to our fellow mortals is to heal our own great but very deeply troubled land. We must respond — we must respond to that ancient command: "Physician, heal thyself."


That trancript above is a bit of a trick. The material in block letters is indeed from Mr. Obama’s West Point speech. Two points for those who recall or guessed the origin of the material in italics. It is in fact from George McGovern’s acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention in Miami Beach in July, 1972-- just short of 42 years ago. My point is, I hope, obvious: there are some strikingly similar themes visible here. Perhaps it is an association the White House values and seeks; perhaps not. But think of the decline in defense budgets under Mr. Obama, the clear reduction in American leadership around the globe, his reversal on his own "red line" against Syrian chemical warfare, and his famous call to "Take the money we’re no longer spending at war, use half of it to pay down our debt, and use the rest to do some nation-building right here at home,"  and the parallels are there, desired or not.

McGovern was speaking in reaction and opposition to the Vietnam War, and his repeated call in that same speech to "Come home, America" was viewed by critics as a form of isolationism. McGovern, who had been a bomber pilot in the Second World War, rejected the charge completely, as would President Obama to any such description of his own policies. And both would be right: what they propose has nothing to do with isolation in the sense in which the isolationists of past decades (one thinks of Robert Taft’s opposition to the NATO treaty) spoke. The isolationists of the first half of the twentieth century sought to protect America, and Americans, and the American experiment, from the world’s iniquity. McGovern and Obama had in mind something else entirely: protecting the world from us.

That is the thread, I think, that joins the two speeches and the two men’s views: a sense that America was doing too much and must be led to do less; a mistrust of American military action and a desire to restrain it, partly by reducing the resources available to the military; a belief that America’s role in the world had often, perhaps most often, been to oppose change and instead ally with colonialist, or imperialist, or repressive powers.

Doing less in the world, turning instead to "nation building at home," is and always will be tempting. Problems developing far away seem far away. Then comes Pearl Harbor or 9/11. But we do not need attacks on America to understand that the world is not a better place with less American power and less American leadership. In southeast Asia the boat people showed us that as soon as our war in Vietnam ended. In the Middle East we are seeing again how things can fall apart, and how dangerous that chaos can quickly become.  "War rarely conforms to slogans" is a nice slogan, as is "nation-building right here at home." But there is only one possible leader for the people and the nations that seek peace and freedom, and we are it. When we step back, others step forward. The president said at West Point that "by most measures, America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world." That is not what people in fear of Iranian hegemony or jihadi violence or Chinese expansionism or Russian irredentism feel today. It is striking to see a president, who prides himself on having spent many years abroad and on understanding the world, incapable now of seeing the world as others--friend and enemy--see it.


More on:

United States

Diplomacy and International Institutions