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Obama speech lacks vision and focus

Publication Date : 31-05-2014


Given his drifting and buffeted foreign policy, U.S. President Barack Obama had to hit a political home run in his long awaited policy address at the West Point commencement ceremonies. Instead, amid the majestic setting of the Military Academy graduation, the President presented a measured and lawyerly foreign policy lecture with a few good sound bites, few surprises, and fewer specific initiatives.

Viewing America's role in the world, the President strove to attain a rhetorical sweet spot between the temptations of isolationism and the pull of intervention. Instead we heard a rehashed defense of his existing policy with a few tweaks against terrorism.

Obama had the perfect stage to present what was hyped as a major foreign policy address; an overdue reset of what both Republican and Democrat critics as well as American allies view as a loss of faith and respect for the USA in the global arena.

Coming just days after his policy pronouncements on Afghanistan, which foolishly signaled to the Taliban the specifics of the American troop withdrawal plans, the speech presented broad brushed themes and only detailed an important US$5 billion anti-terrorist initiative for the developing world.

Richard Haas, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, conceded the speech “lacked a clear strategic rationale.”

Reviewing key foreign policy challenges over the past five years, does the President's rhetoric at West Point, match the sorry reality in which the world has become a far more dangerous, and clearly less predictable, place because of his wavering policies?

Significantly, The Arab Spring swept like a desert sandstorm across much of North Africa; Egypt's pro-American ruler was toppled only to be replaced by a Muslim Brotherhood regime, which in turn was thankfully ousted by the Egyptian military. Sadly, Egyptians on both sides of the political fence blame the USA and it's far from assured that the new government of General Abdul el-Sissi will be a reliable partner. Egypt, a pivotal ally for the United States, and indeed Israel, has become a political question mark.

Libya. After the toppling of the hated dictator Gadhafi, the U.S. watched as Libya degenerated into militia rule. The attack on the U.S. Consular facilities in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, killing four Americans, reflected the instability in which terrorists thrive. Today Libya remains in chaos and a U.S. Navy task force is on standby to evacuate Americans from the beleaguered country.

Syria has descended into a humanitarian hell during its three years of civil war. While the Obama Administration initially encouraged pro-democracy forces to overthrow the Assad family dictatorship, the USA failed to follow through early on with necessary aid.

The conflict expanded, the rebels became increasingly radicalised, and today the options have dangerously narrowed. Indeed after the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons last August, Obama drew his infamous red lines, threatened military force, and then waffled before both Damascus and the world community, doing nothing.

Russia. Despite former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's vaunted reset with Russia policy, the current relationship between Washington and Moscow is strained in ways not seen since the Cold War. Vladimir Putin's nationalism and neo-Soviet swag has bullied and dismembered neighbouring Ukraine.

While U.S. policy has rhetorically challenged the Russian actions, besides some slaps on the wrist, Putin got away with Crimea. The Ukraine crisis is far from over. European countries such as Poland and the Baltic states, though Nato members, remain quietly nervous.

Significantly the South China Sea disputes were mentioned, with Obama stating, “In the Asia Pacific, we are supporting Southeast Asian nations as they negotiate a code of conduct with China on the South China Sea, and are working to resolve territorial and maritime disputes through international law.”

What the President failed to say was that Beijing's territorial assertiveness is encouraged by the gradual decline in U.S. Navy sea power which serves as a counterweight in the Pacific. Equally there was no mention of South Korea, a place where many West Point graduates are likely to serve.

Even ties with Western Europe remain strained in the wake of the NSA electronic spying scandal. This is one of the reasons why a planned Transatlantic Trade Pact, a win-win economic deal for both American and European consumers, is now in limbo. Ties are strained, particularly in Germany.

According to Mark Mardell of the BBC, “The problem with this speech is that it is a restatement of Mr. Obama's policy, not a re-evaluation. He's defending a policy that has manifestly failed to produce a stable world free from crisis and turmoil.”

Is this faltering foreign policy, which has made friends fearful and enemies bolder, really in the U.S. national interest?

(John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism The Diplomacy of Separated Nations; Germany; Korea, China)


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