It was billed as President Obama's comeback speech on foreign policy, a response to mounting criticism — both foreign and domestic — that his international leadership has been a failure. A "big picture" address, it would outline the president's foreign policy vision as it stands five-and-a-half years since he entered the White House.
Yet the commencement address yesterday at West Point failed to deliver on either count. Instead, it reinforced the impression of a lackluster commander-in-chief with an empty foreign policy vision.
In many respects this was a highly defensive speech, one that will do little to allay growing fears, both at home and abroad, that American leadership is in decline on the world stage. It was delivered by a president seemingly obsessed with image and public perception, rather than the long-term strength of America's foreign and security policy.
Hence his short-sighted decision to abandon Afghanistan in 2016, with the Taliban lurking in the wings to retake power, following in the footsteps of his withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011. Two-and-a-half years after the last American soldiers left Baghdad, the al Qaeda flag now flies over the city of Fallujah, a terrible precedent for developments in Afghanistan once the Stars and Stripes are lowered in Kabul.
At West Point, Obama failed to outline a coherent strategy for meeting many of the other biggest foreign policy challenges of the day, from mounting Russian aggression in Eastern Europe to the looming threat of a nuclear-armed Iran. Obama boasted of his handling of the Ukraine crisis, claiming that his administration had rallied a coalition of countries to condemn Russia. He made no mention of the fact, however, that Russian forces now occupy Crimea, or that Russian President Vladimir Putin's troops remain camped on the border with eastern Ukraine, ready to pounce once orders are given by Moscow. The president declined to outline any kind of long-term strategy for dealing with the Russian bear, content to continue with a flailing policy of simply muddling along.
On Syria, Obama outlined a new partnership initiative with allies in the region that has come three years too late, after Syrian President Bashar Assad's brutal tyranny in Damascus has consolidated its power, with Islamists taking the upper hand within the flagging rebel movement. Meanwhile, on the Iranian front, the president continues to pledge his faith in nuclear negotiations with Tehran, while the Islamist regime remains the world's biggest state sponsor of international terrorism, with every declared intention of advancing its nuclear ambitions.
The president's West Point speech was short on policy but big on grandiose platitudes and self-congratulatory statements that will do nothing to reassure America's allies in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. It was a distinctly lightweight address on issues of tremendous gravity, with a direct impact on U.S. interests. From Tokyo to London, America's partners are looking to Washington for leadership, but getting feel-good Twitter sound bites instead.
Obama came across yesterday as the anti-Reagan, a figure content to lead from behind rather than project confident, assertive U.S. leadership — hardly the right signal to send to America's increasingly emboldened enemies and strategic competitors. President Reagan understood the importance of building America's defenses, squaring up to America's foes, and standing with friends and allies. Obama has had every opportunity to learn from Reagan's success, but has sadly chosen instead to pursue a path of American decline and disengagement from the world.
- Nile Gardiner is the director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation and a former aide to Lady Thatcher.
Originally appeared in The Hill