President Obama’s May 28 speech at West Point was long overdue. Chatter about America’s decline, the Pentagon’s budget crunch, deteriorating crises in Syria and Ukraine, and confusion over Obama’s signature foreign policy initiative—the Asia Rebalance—has left many questioning America’s ability or willingness to engage, much less lead, in the world.
Obama strongly refuted any notions of American decline, retrenchment, or timidity in the world, stating: “America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world;” “American isolationism is not an option;” and “America must always lead on the world stage. If we don’t no one else will.” These are reassuring statements for allies and partners, who will now be watching for actions to match the words.
Meanwhile, the audience of West Point graduates, whose future will rest on presidential decisions to send them into harm’s way, were likely more interested in the president’s articulation of when and why he will consider deploying troops. Indeed, national security analysts, academics, and pundits have been trying to reverse engineer an “Obama Doctrine” since the day he took office six years ago, cross-referencing each decision or non-decision about American military engagement with official statements to uncover an underlying pattern or philosophy regarding the use of force.
Yesterday, he made it clear: the president will not hesitate to, “Use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when our core interests demand it—when our people are threatened; when our livelihoods are at stake; when the security of our allies is in danger.” But otherwise, “when issues of global concern do not pose a direct threat to the United States… when crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction but do not directly threaten us, then the threshold for military action must be higher.” In most cases, therefore, American action should be multilateral, proportional, and in concert with diplomatic, legal, and economic actions.
The president’s preference for multilateral cooperation in the use of military force reflects a deeper respect for international and multilateral institutions like the UN, NATO, and the IMF along with international law. The president understands that this global architecture, which America largely designed and leads, promotes peace and prosperity, and is thus in America’s interest to reinforce. More tactically, these systems provide the forum to catalyze multilateral action—and thus, burden sharing—among allies and partners.
Obama gets this right—multilateral action is more powerful than unilateral action. And most multilateral action requires American leadership.
Yet deciding when and if to use military force, multilateral or otherwise, is contingent on understanding what type of military force is available and appropriate to the task. And here is where more creativity and nuance are needed. The president is right to remind us that, “Military action cannot be the only—or even the primary— component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean every problem is a nail.”
But of course, the military instrument is much more than just a hammer. Conceiving it as such only limits our ability to utilize all elements of national power in more strategic ways. The military instrument is not a simple all-or-nothing switch, or a choice between all-out war or doing nothing.
At West Point, for instance, the president announced that the United States will be providing training and assistance to the moderate Syrian rebels—something which could have been started a year ago, probably to greater effect. The military could also have been used for humanitarian relief operations there, providing security for aid workers struggling to help thousands of Syrian refugees and displaced people. While it is wise to be cautious in the use of military force, our hesitancy to consider any military options for fear of mission creep—or to immediately take military action off the table—will bound our decision space and in some cases paralyze us into inaction.
Also announced in Obama’s West Point address was a plan to request $5 billion dollars to promote counterterrorism (CT) partnerships. This could be money well spent if it focuses on holistic security sector initiatives to include rule-of-law programs and institution-building. Congress should support these initiatives with multi-year, multi-sector funding, and in support of specific regional and country strategies. If funding comes piecemeal or inconsistently—or is disproportionately applied—such programs could backfire.
Another word of warning: The president claims that this regional CT program is feasible because of our reduced presence in Afghanistan. We should take care to apply at least the same level of effort to our ongoing CT partnership with Afghanistan as we are in the other countries the president mentioned: Yemen, Somalia, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq. Afghanistan should be a priority recipient of training and advising assistance in this CT effort. In this context, the eagerness to get to zero troops in Afghanistan is out of sync with the wider strategy to counter terrorism through security assistance efforts throughout the region.
Finally, in discussing his drone strike policy, the president rightly states, “We must not create more enemies than we take off the battlefield.” But just because we deem these strikes “legal” by our own standards, and even if we take care with respect to civilian casualties, it is not clear that this decapitation strategy targeting terrorist leaders of an increasingly decentralized network is having a strategic effect, or even that it is not simply creating more bad guys. Obama is right to note that our own actions can backfire; this should be the test applied to the entire U.S. targeted killings strategy.
Ultimately, Obama’s speech was the firmest articulation yet of the principles that have guided his foreign policy these past six years. It was, as the New York Times noted, still often vague and unspecific—but it was not weak, and it did not lack for big ideas. The point was to articulate a vision of American leadership and the president’s guiding principles about exercising power in the world, not to tic off a laundry list of global crises and policies underway.
Under Obama’s leadership, the United States has shifted to a strategy of force held in reserve, complemented by the slow and quiet work of multilateral engagement and partnership. These are not the sorts of initiatives that typically win the praise of hawks. Yet, in a global environment destined to grow only more complex and multipolar, it is this work that may prove the most important.