By now you’ve surely heard some less than glowing characterizations of President Obama’s May 28 commencement address at West Point. Maybe you’ve seen the video, peppered with soft applause, far less than what one might expect at a presidential address at a military academy.
That’s because the content itself was far below what one might expect from a Commander-in-Chief, especially in remarks supposedly provided to inspire young men and women about to serve under him.
Even my meager expectations were not met. This meandering, uninspired (and uninspiring) exercise in pontificating and scapegoating was from a President far more eager to defend himself politically than our nation strategically.
But rather than add to an already powerful body of negative reviews, I thought I’d cue up actual excerpts that cried out for immediate response. They are offered in the order delivered; I will leave it to the reader to rank them in order of effrontery:
1. “When I first spoke at West Point in 2009, we still had more than 100,000 troops in Iraq. We were preparing to surge in Afghanistan. Our counterterrorism efforts were focused on Al Qaeda’s core leadership — those who had carried out the 9/11 attacks. And our nation was just beginning a long climb out of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
Four and a half years later, as you graduate, the landscape has changed. We have removed our troops from Iraq. We are winding down our war in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda’s leadership on the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been decimated, and Osama bin Laden is no more. And through it all, we’ve refocused our investments in what has always been a key source of American strength: a growing economy that can provide opportunity for everybody who’s willing to work hard and take responsibility here at home.”
One can taste his disdain for that horrible era when we had 100,000 troops in Iraq, also known as the period when we at least appeared serious about making Iraq safe for democracy. I’m sure the cadets appreciated the reminder of their teenage years, when we were beginning that “long climb” out of the economic crisis. It’s been long, all right, and shows no sign of great progress. The progress the President clearly embraces is getting past that nasty war spending and “refocusing our investments” on domestic spending, always a riveting theme at military graduations.
2. …”[By] most measures America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world. Those who argue otherwise — who suggest that America is in decline or has seen its global leadership slip away — are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics. Think about it. Our military has no peer. The odds of a direct threat against us by any nation are low, and do not come close to the dangers we faced during the Cold War.”
Really? A suggestion that our global muscles have atrophied is either flawed history or political hackery? That’s rich. And pardon me if my confidence requires a higher bar than “low odds” of a direct threat. Sadly, the odds are much higher for a litany of terrible things that could threaten us directly in the short term— nuclear adventures by Iran and North Korea, Libya and Syria in a rolling boil of dangerous discontent, al Qaeda empowered all over the world by our retreats. Indeed, our military has no peer. But our nation has rarely faced so many tyrants and terrorists unafraid of inviting its attention.
3. “ It will be your generation’s task to respond to this new world. The question we face, the question each of you will face, is not whether America will lead but how we will lead, not just to secure our peace and prosperity but also extend peace and prosperity around the globe.”
Pardon me, but there is already sad doubt as to whether America will lead as current crises unfold. President Obama may consider it “leadership” to lecture the world about mannerly interaction or deploy John Kerry for the occasional stern finger-wagging, but it falls short of the way allies used to respect us and enemies used to fear us.
4. “I believe we have a real stake — abiding self-interest — in making sure our children and our grandchildren grow up in a world where schoolgirls are not kidnapped; where individuals aren’t slaughtered because of tribe or faith or political belief. I believe that a world of greater freedom and tolerance is not only a moral imperative; it also helps keep us safe.”
It’s not that this passage is so ill-placed; the problem is what is missing. This administration is filled with indignation about Nigerian kidnappings and selected persecutions, but has never shown the spine to do battle against the enemy it will not even identify by name: radical Islam. This cafeteria-style intermittent vexation makes it clear what does and does not motivate this President to action. It most decidedly is not the war that has been honorably fought for a dozen years by the cadets’ comrades-in-arms.
This cries out for context, but even from war-hardened Ike, it is deeply problematic. Of course the deliberate provocation of war is wrong; but from the birth of our nation to the need for its reassembly the next century, from the two World Wars to the ejection of Saddam from Kuwait, war is sometimes necessary to stop an unconscionable evil or right an unendurable wrong. Today’s starkest dangers come not from a trigger-happy America eager to deploy anywhere, but from a reticent America telling the world it wishes to deploy nowhere.
6. “A strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naïve and unsustainable.”
No one suggests such a strategy. It is surprising that there was room on the stage for the cadets to walk across in view of all the straw men the President had set up for this self-congratulatory exercise.
7. “In taking direct action, we must uphold standards that reflect our values. That means taking strikes only when we face a continuing, imminent threat, and only where there is near certainty of no civilian casualties, for our actions should meet a simple test: We must not create more enemies than we take off the battlefield.”
If the prevention of civilian casualties had guided our strategy in World War II, the entire continent would speak German today. Any fighting force with a conscience will always weigh risks to non-combatants as a factor in evaluating its strategy. But the fighting force placing civilian protection above victory will never have victory. This is why we have not driven terrorists from Iraq and Afghanistan; we have been too interested in building schools and laying water pipelines and not interested enough in the stark necessity of war— killing enough of the enemy to persuade its surrender.
If our cause is just and our methods measured, we do not need to wring our hands over what the locals think of us. If we are in the right and have the will to win, the rightness of our actions will be appreciated over time. I’m sure we were not popular with the Japanese as we dropped bombs on Hiroshima. If Harry Truman, who reminds us what Democrats used to act like, had been paralyzed by Japanese opinion polls, the war could have continued through his presidency and beyond. Instead, we chased Hitler into his fetid bunker and bombed Imperial Japan into submission. Within less than a generation, both vanquished nations were steadfast allies.
8. “We reserve all options to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. But for the first time in a decade, we have a very real chance of achieving a breakthrough agreement, one that is more effective and durable than what we could have achieved through the use of force. And throughout these negotiations, it has been our willingness to work through multilateral channels that kept the world on our side.”
9. “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being. But what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it is our willingness to affirm them through our actions.”
The first sentence is laughable in view of the far more honest Obama who famously said during his first trip abroad: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” This was an insult to his nation and anyone who considers it unique in stature and history. There is no evidence of any change in his nonchalance about America’s place in the world.
And where exactly has America offended “international norms” and the rule of law? Is there no bottom to the Obama tactic of defining the nation he leads as some errant creature in need of redemption at his mighty hand? But wait— the best evidence of America’s offenses against the world’s fragile feelings may be contained in our final quote, which is meaningless but repellent nonetheless.
10. “I will continue to push to close Gitmo, because American values and legal traditions do not permit the indefinite detention of people beyond our borders.”
I have walked with and among the honorable U.S. troops who are fighting the War on Terror in our hemisphere at that facility. Freed from their comfortable cells stocked with fresh Korans, plenty of those detainees would kill as many of us as they could. As they watch America grow weary and wobbly against them, they are surely energized that their side is winning the waiting game.
As the days tick by, until we have given up on the war in word and in deed, we are most assuredly entitled to detain enemy combatants at a facility under our authority. Thank God it is beyond our borders; only a worldview as twisted as the Barack Obama-Eric Holder axis thinks it is preferable to house them on American soil. Obama will never close that facility, knowing the resulting horrific relocation of its population to U.S. soil will dash whatever remains of his reputation as he leaves office.
The constant perversion of the term “American values” to meet some Obama-esque utopian ideal has become a dangerous habit. Even more dangerous is a presidential whim to close a facility that has taught us much about the terrorists’ designs on us, and taught them much about our resolve.
A president obsessed with shuttering Guantanamo delivers a wholly different message. But that seems to be the message he wishes to send— to the world and to a graduation ceremony filled with young Americans who are prepared to protect and defend the things that make America great. Let us hope that after two more years of feeble, directionless speeches like this, they can serve under a new commander-in-chief who shares that commitment.