Already the right-wing and hawkish critics are shrieking, and the centrist and right-leaning pundits on CNN are saying that the president didn’t try to answer his neoconservative opponents, but President Obama’s speech to West Point graduates was a powerful defense of the notion that war is not the answer.
In his five years in office, Obama hasn’t always lived by those words, needless to say—having twice escalated the war in Afghanistan before winding it down, having stepped up a worldwide war by drones against terrorists and wrongdoers, and having engaged in an undeclared war in Libya. (In the comments section, feel free to add other examples.) But in the main, Obama firmly and repeatedly declared that American military power should not be the solution to each and every problem. Indeed, the president even slammed interventionists on the “left,” which may or may not have been a knock against the liberal interventionists who inhabit the misguided world of the “responsibility-to-protect” doctrine.
The glaring hole in Obama’s speech was his continued defense of America’s drone wars: “When we have actionable intelligence, that’s what we do.” But throughout his speech, Obama said, again and again, that he will use force—that is, troops and planes and ships—only as a very last resort. It is, indeed, refreshing to hear that from the commander in chief, especially in the face of continuing pressure from hawks, neoconservatives and pro-military flag wavers for the president to get tough in Syria, Ukraine, the South China Sea and Afghanistan.
Trying to distinguish himself from “self-described realists” who say that crises in Syria, Ukraine and Africa “are not ours to solve,” Obama added that he also differs with “interventionists on the left and right” who say that the United States’ “willingness to apply force around the world is the ultimate safeguard against chaos.” He added:
But to say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution. Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint, but from our willingness to rush into military adventures—without thinking through the consequences; without building international support and legitimacy for our action, or leveling with the American people about the sacrifice required. Tough talk draws headlines, but war rarely conforms to slogans. As General Eisenhower, someone with hard-earned knowledge on this subject, said at this ceremony in 1947: “War is mankind’s most tragic and stupid folly; to seek or advise its deliberate provocation is a black crime against all men.”