Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Obama, coalition warrior

President Obama laid out his foreign policy vision at West Point today. The New York Times calls it a "muscular but not militaristic" foreign policy. I see it as a defense -- and defensive in tone -- of his reluctance to use military force except in extreme cases and primarily in concert with others.

He uses the speaker's device of posing unacceptable alternatives -- between "self-described realists" and "interventionists on the left and right" -- and then asserting that he has found the middle way. He supports the use of force to build a world of "greater freedom and tolerance"as a "moral imperative," but is sharply critical of military adventures begun "without thinking through the consequences; without building international support and legitimacy for our action, or leveling with the American people about the sacrifice required."

To me the most newsworthy aspect of the speech is the emphasis on seeking allies and partners for collective actions when matters do not pose a direct threat to the United States. He explains how this would work in countering terrorism by announcing a $5 billion "Counter-Terrorism Partnership Fund." [This sounds a lot like a doubling of the existing "section 1206" program  that has already spent about half that amount since 2006.] This is good in theory but hasn't always worked out so well in practice. Let's see what difference it makes in his target countries of Yemen, Somalia, Libya and Mali.

Obama tries to defend the strength of his leadership against numerous critics by noting how well it has worked in gaining multilateral support for sanctions against Russia and Iran. He also snipes at critics who won't let America lead in combating the effects of climate change because they deny it is happening or who oppose the Law of the Sea Treaty when we want to enforce it against China.

Obama comes across as a reluctant unilateral warrior, but a more willing coalition fighter. He still wants international law to have some force and effect on all nations. It's useful to contrast his approach with that of George W. Bush, who in his own 2002 address at West Point broached the idea of preventive war. It's good to be moving in a different direction now.

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