Speechmaking vs. Policymaking–Obama at West Point

President Obama has always been a great speechmaker. During the 2008 presidential primaries, young candidate Obama dazzled the Democratic electorate with both words and delivery. Never mind content or strategy; the spectacle of election oratory and its excitement have a rhetorical influence much, much greater than the dubious reality of its potential implementation. To turn a good phrase, and do it with conviction, is the very stuff that electioneering is made of. But Obama’s pinnacle of success came as speechmaker and candidate, not as a day-to-day, hands-on president with a far-reaching program for US domestic and foreign policy.
To be fair, this president did not inherit a set of political and economic circumstances from his predecessor that could have been called fortuitous. The two ongoing wars were bad enough. But the economic crisis of 2008 risked the complete meltdown of the world’s financial system. As the global banks teetered, the ideological warfare between the US political factions intensified. What had been a bad political environment (caused by the deteriorating wars) metastasized into the worst two-party divide since the Great Depression. Candidate Obama had to decide quickly whether to support the Wall St. wing of his party at the risk of losing many in his left-wing, poor and anti-war base. But Obama was not a radical. In fact, on the issue of the Wall St. banks, candidate Obama was a classic limousine liberal. In the end, the two Wall St. factions of both the Republican and Democratic parties coalesced into a huge bailout, as the banks were now defined as “too big to fail”.
But even with a terrible and exposed hand to play, the magic of the speechmaking remained as the president’s greatest asset. When Obama spoke, it was as if America had elected the ghost of Martin Luther King. With the tortured racial history of the US as background, many people believed in this man as the great hope for a new kind of politics. A politics that could overcome the multitude of divisions that had encroached on the American dream. A dream that was fast being eroded by debt, war and the growing realization of wealth and income inequality. For many, the idea of an African-American president could prove, at least on the issue of race, that even though the economy was failing and the nation mired in war, social progress was still being made.
In the vast urban landscape across America, the sweet-talking and youthful Obama, with a cool and collected rational demeanor (and two cute little children in the White House) took on the twenty-first century air of a new “New Frontier”. The statuesque, Kennedy-like president chose Cairo for his first major foreign policy address. The president challenged the Egyptian government on its human rights record and lack of democracy. It wasn’t long before his image wooed the Oslo committee, and the handsome young president was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Nobody was really sure why he was awarded the prize, but in his Cairo speech the president had dazzled the world with a hand extended to all America’s enemies (Iran included). After six years of war, and in the middle of a devastating recession, the American people (especially those working-class voters who now feared an extended unemployment) had tired of the US role in the world. Obama’s job would be to disentangle the US commitment as the “world’s policeman” and define a new direction for US foreign policy. America had begun its slow withdrawal from the Middle East battlefields that had cost it so much blood and treasure.
Then came the Arab spring, and with it the complete absence of a US Middle East policy that made any kind of sense. As the Cairo streets filled with plugged-in twenty-year-olds, Washington’s support for its old friend and ally, Hosni Mubarak, quickly faded. The ramifications of this sudden US about-face quickly moved the scene to Libya and Syria, and US policy became murkier and murkier. After allowing the French to lead NATO in Tripoli and Benghazi, President Obama backtracked on Syria. Although he declared that Assad (the butcher) “must go”, Obama held that US interests in Syria were limited. But Syria was a client state of Iran; Iran and the two most important US allies in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Israel, were essentially in a state of war. Of course, Syria and its democratic future were of vital interest to the US. Only Obama didn’t understand.
How could the president forsake an old friend (Mubarak) in a matter of days, while allowing Assad and Iran to most violently hold off their peaceful democratic opposition over the course of months? No speech could ever undo the damage of this foreign policy enigma. The Saudis were appalled, and the Israelis left to wonder. The Iranians took notice. If Obama had no stomach to support a moderate opposition in Syria with even a modicum of indirect support, what indeed was the policy of this administration when it came to Iranian intentions?
But Obama the politician was not about to give the appearance to blunder into another Middle East war. With the 2012 election approaching, and the economy in a hole that portended political disaster, Obama chose to portray his opponent as a Bush/Cheney-like neo-con whose actions would entangle our debt-ridden nation in another foreign military imbroglio. This political message had great resonance in the center of the US spectrum, among the so-called swing voters. With their support, Obama’s re-election margin was greater than expected. But as already emphasized, speechmaking and electioneering are not necessarily good (or even adequate) policymaking. In the Middle East and around the world, the direction of US foreign policy became increasingly unknown. Was the US under Obama the world’s sole superpower, or had its international role receded? If the US depended on the consensus of multilateral institutions, why were his relationships with Moscow and Beijing so strained? Did this have anything to do with the overcautious handling of the US’s Iranian and Syrian portfolios?
Now, a year and a half into his second term (and with mid-term elections approaching), Obama is once again making speeches. However, after nearly six years in office, the bloom is off the rose. The global economy is still sputtering, and the Obama foreign policy appears enervated and without direction. Where better to explain the geopolitical strategy of the US than at the commencement exercises for Army cadets at West Point? Just give another speech to explain all. But hold on — there was hardly a word about either the Middle East or the newly bifurcated world of the “New Cold War”. Iran had been reduced to a few words about a “good chance for a prospective nuclear deal”. And that’s it. The potential China-Russia-Iran axis wasn’t even mentioned at all. So where do we stand in the Middle East?
To balance Saudi Arabia and Iran requires an American commitment that has always been unacceptable to the Islamic Republic in Tehran. One could argue that the presence of US forces in the Persian Gulf has been the catalyst for the Iranian nuclear program. Iran’s aim has been, first and foremost, the withdrawal of a US military presence in the waters within the clearly-defined proximity of its territorial boundaries. But Saudi Arabia rejects any naval retreat by the US. The very idea of such a prospect, at a time of great regional turmoil and a Saudi-Iranian proxy war, is an anathema to Riyadh. But in order to get the kind of nuclear deal that would satisfy both Israel and the Sunni Arab states, deep concessions to Iran have to be made. These concessions would require US acquiescence to a so-called “legitimate Iranian sphere of influence within the Middle East”. In other words, an American re-formulation of what has been regional policy for the last thirty-five years. And at the expense of whom? Most likely long-time US allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Is it any wonder that when President Obama touts his Iranian nuclear negotiations, trepidation on the part of the region becomes the natural response?
A bad nuclear deal cannot be a part of the Obama game-plan. Congress will reject such a policy, and it would risk a generalized regional nuclear proliferation or war. No nuclear deal is equally a dead-end. It certainly cannot be extended outward until the president leaves office. Israel will not accept such a scenario (Bibi must decide his course of action), and Congress will most certainly balk at such a devious avoidance strategy. But a really good nuclear deal would alter the regional balance in Iran’s favor. This outcome could place the Russians and the Chinese at a distinct advantage over Washington unless, of course, the Islamic Republic and the US became partners and close allies. Could this possibly be the administration’s thinking? If the answer is an unqualified yes (yes we can), then my answer would be that such a delusion is simply not a foreign policy!
The problem is that the president’s speechmaking has become tiring, while his policy formulation remains ill-defined. Between war and peace lies creative diplomacy. Unlike the president’s message at West Point (that he would stand behind his allies but would also use multilateral institutions), without a better relationship with both Russia and China, nothing at the UN can be accomplished. So, if Obama doesn’t want to be the sole superpower of the world (or does he? the speech didn’t clarify the issue), to accomplish anything in the Middle East will require cooperation. This means that the new-old divisions in Europe (NATO’s eastward expansion) and the Cold War divisions in Asia must begin to be erased. But Obama talked as if nothing has changed. To hear his speech, you would think that Boris Yeltsin was still president of Russia, and China was still a minor economic power. Think again.
The US must decide the nature of the world it wants to help mold. The G-1 model has become outdated. Obama or any other president simply can’t afford to be the world’s sole superpower. The G-2 model is expensive as well. A new Cold War pitting China-Russia-Iran against NATO is not only dangerous (especially in the Middle East), it could also very easily and quickly get out of hand (not a legacy President Obama would relish). A G-zero world is a world without leadership that could disintegrate into chaos. Only a G-3 model will work to everyone’s advantage. The US, Europe (inclusive of Russia in a new security structure), and China must work toward cooperative world peace. You’d think that this would be a no-brainer for Obama. But G-3 international security has never been on his agenda. On the contrary, Barack Obama has been a cautious and hesitant G-1 warrior, and that policy has led to a second G-2 world. This reluctant policy has placed us on the precipice of a new Cold War. Most Republicans welcome this world (Rand Paul excluded). But in a very paradoxical way, Obama and the Republicans are not all that far apart. Both parties have no peace strategy. Obama has never really been a peace president. All the great speeches and the fancy words belie the overriding foreign policy reality of his administration: The US ship of state has hit a sandbar and is stuck in the past.

From America’s dairy state, have a glorious Shavuot. The blog will return after the holiday.

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).