This morning President Obama delivered the commencement speech to the 2014 graduating class at the U.S. Military Academy West Point. Obama stood before the Corps of Cadets – men and women who with depth of character and perseverance have shown their commitment to “Duty, Honor, Country” – and used the opportunity to defend his own foreign policy decisions. Many Americans and certainly the media tuned in to watch the speech and it will be parsed until sundown from every political angle. However, despite the president’s oratory skills and his now all too familiar phrasing, one has to wonder what Veterans and even the graduating cadets were thinking about Obama’s own commitment to “Duty, Honor and Country.” Given Obama’s current dismal approval rating of 43.9 percent, it is likely that the thoughts of many Americans were bleak in nature.
Obama did receive a resounding round of applause when early on in the speech he told the cadets that they were the first graduating class since 9/11 who might not be deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. That applause was a direct reflection of a war weary nation – one that has seen too many American lives lost, an economy deeply impacted by the acts of radical Islamic terrorists and over a decade of war on two fronts.
Obama congratulated the cadets, including making mention of West Point’s first “all female” command team of Austen Boroff and Erin Mauldin. He also used his folksy charm to grab a laugh by offering a pardon to any cadets who were on restriction for “minor conduct offenses” remarking that he wished somebody had done that for him when he was in school. Again, while this remark garnered the laugh Obama hoped for, the comment likely served to remind both the local and national audience of the recent healthcare conduct offenses against our nation’s Veterans, something that not even Obama can defend. Not to mention the budgetary conduct that produced defense cuts that will serve to reduce the U.S. Army to levels not seen since before World War Two.
The odd juxtaposition of those cuts and a request by Obama in today’s speech for the Pentagon to support a $5 billion “Counterterrorism Partnership Fund” caused many post speech pundits to scratch their heads in confusion. In an interview after the speech Representative Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-California) who chairs the House Armed Services Committee wondered how Obama could simultaneously be asking for defense cuts and additional spending. Ostensibly, the additional funding is designated to provide nations in the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa with the means to equip and train their forces to combat terrorism. History has repeatedly shown however that this sort of foreign policy funding rarely lands in the hands of the “good guys.”
In defense of his foreign policy, Obama repeated the oft-heard mantra about Osama Bin Laden being dead and claimed that the leadership of Al Qaeda on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan has been “decimated.” He further claimed that America has “rarely been stronger in relation to the world” and that those who disagree with him are “misreading history” or “engaged in partisan politics.” Representative McKeon challenged this assertion stating that world leaders do not listen to speeches; they “watch what we do.” McKeon noted that he has had personal experience with the frustration of world leaders who, when they visit his office in Washington D.C. ask him, “Where is America? What are you going to do?”
A main theme of Obama’s speech to the West Point cadets centered on his perception of his own successes and whether American policy is best served by an interventionist or isolationist foundation. He acknowledged that neither view “fully speaks to the demand of this moment” and that although “we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders” military solutions are not always the answer to achieving those goals. He further claimed that previous administrations had made costly mistakes because of their lack of restraint and by a willingness to “rush into military adventures” and said he is “haunted” by the loss of life that resulted from his decision to support the military surge in Afghanistan.
While the military and Veterans might take offense at Obama’s description of their service as “military adventures” Obama might take offense at having his foreign policy described as feckless and disingenuous by his detractors. Obama himself has described his own foreign policy as “not sexy” which is a flippant, defensive and evasive statement that serves absolutely no purpose other than a potential increase in his “cool” factor among the uninformed.
Obama’s speech to the West Point Cadets who graduated today was a lengthy affair and he spent much of his time defending his foreign policy – a policy that has received criticism from Americans from all political parties. He stated that his bottom line was that America must “always lead” on the world stage, however just because America has the best military, which he described as a “hammer,” that did not make every world problem a “nail.” He let Americans know that, given the “awesome power” of our military, they should expect their Commander in Chief to be very clear about how that power should be used. In this Obama is right – Americans and other world leaders would appreciate a better understanding of how the United States is going to deal with the ongoing threats of radical Islamic terrorism and the potential threats to our nation from leaders in Russia, Syria, Asia and Iran. To effectively address these and other threats, America needs a fully supported military and a Commander in Chief who, while understanding the need for diplomacy, also understands when the time for speeches is over.
Opinion By Alana Marie Burke