Obama wheels US policy down an uncertain path

Alan Philps analyses President Obama's speech at the West Point military academy.

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American allies looking to President Barack Obama for a ringing affirmation of US security guarantees in the face of Russian and Chinese assertiveness will have listened to his speech on Wednesday with a sense of disappointment. The professorial president is not given to creating big headlines, and his address to the cadets at the West Point military academy was no exception.

The White House had billed his speech as a long-awaited exposition of the president’s foreign policy strategy. Previously, his goal has been to rein in the military overreach of the George W Bush years. Having set a timetable for final withdrawal from Afghanistan at the end of 2016 – not coincidentally the end of his second term – Mr Obama has raised concerns that pullback is the only weapon in his arsenal.

While much of the world denounced Mr Bush’s foreign wars, America’s allies are now questioning whether Mr Obama has gone too far in reverse. He has appeared to be a spectator while China asserts its claims to waters contested by its neighbours and Vladimir Putin manipulates Russia’s “compatriots” to weaken the Ukrainian state.

In recent weeks, the foreign policy commentariat in Washington has lost confidence in Mr Obama as commander-in-chief, thanks to his lack of tough action in Syria, Ukraine and the Pacific. Even moderate voices in the cacophony of Washington, such as the retired diplomat Nicholas Burns, now a professor at Harvard, were urging him to “plant a flag in the sand”. He suggested that Mr Obama should call a Nato summit to reassure eastern European allies of US support, and make a similar gesture to its Asia-Pacific allies. A rise in military spending would show that the US was purposeful, but not belligerent.

In the end, Mr Obama ignored this advice. He made clear that America was a self-interested power, and would not let tough talk drag him into more “costly mistakes”. There was a pro forma statement that he would use military force “when the security of our allies is in danger”. But there was no meat on this bone thrown out to the allies. The next passage made it seem all the more insubstantial: the key uses of military force were to “protect our people, our homeland, our way of life”.

Talk of isolationism is, of course, misplaced. The United States is still the foremost military power in the world, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Its power and reach is beyond the dreams of any existing power. So what is Mr Obama going to do with it? He announced a $5 billion (Dh18bn) fund to train countries from South Asia to the Sahel to fight jihadists. He is putting his faith in diplomacy, which means working with allies and rivals in multilateral diplomacy. This looks like an expansion of blue-helmeted United Nations peacekeeping operations, which are already growing fast, with new and more assertive missions in Africa.

In Syria, Mr Obama promised to step up training and advice to the moderate opposition. This might have been useful two or three years ago, but not now. The word from the Obama administration is that it sees Syria as primarily a “counter-terrorism challenge”. That would indicate that removing Bashar Al Assad from power is not the goal, and he can look forward to a new presidential term, until his Russian and Iranian backers decide he has outlived his usefulness.

The president clearly does not see his legacy in terms of projecting military force. Even in diplomacy, there was no indication how America’s underachievement over Syria and the Israel-Palestine talks might be given a fresh impetus.

Not surprisingly, the reaction from the armchair strategists in Washington has been harsh. If they had been listening closely they would have heard the loud cheer from the army cadets when he told them they were the first class since 2001 not to have to fight and die in Afghanistan and Iraq. If the young warriors do not believe in victory in these discredited theatres of war, who are the hawkish scribblers to tell them they are wrong?

Amid the thicket of Mr Obama’s academic arguments, it is clear that he believes two things, neither of them reassuring to anxious allies.

The first is that a deal to forestall Iran becoming a nuclear power is the big prize, which would be his foreign policy legacy. He said: “It has been our willingness to work through multilateral channels [over Iran] that kept the world on our side.” Translated this means: We can put up with Vladimir Putin’s bullying of Ukraine, a country of no strategic importance to us, if he stays with us in the Iran negotiations. The second is that for Mr Obama, politics always trumps strategy. This is nothing new. When he announced the “surge” in troop numbers in Afghanistan in 2009, he also announced when they would be leaving. This is absurd in military terms: the troops should leave when the job is done. But it makes perfect sense for a politician with his eye on the next election.

He is repeating the trick now. The US is expected to keep some 9,800 troops in Afghanistan after the country regains its sovereignty at the end of the year, down from a high point of 100,000.

The residual figure is one the US military can live with but they must accept that all will be gone by the end of 2016, when he leaves office.

Again, this is madness from a military point of view – what if the Taliban are about to conquer Kabul in December 2016? But it will allow him to declare “mission accomplished” though perhaps with more credibility than Mr Bush.

As a Washington Post writer noted, this was “a speech not meant for the national policy debate, but an appeal to an electorate very tired of war”.

Mr Obama has the virtue of consistency. He was elected to focus on American problems at home, not to slay dragons abroad. His latest speech only confirms that. But that still leaves America’s allies unsure what an American guarantee means and what purpose its military power serves.

Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs

On Twitter @aphilps