Some thoughts about President Obama’s lengthy foreign policy speech at West Point a few days ago:
The speech was nothing if not earnest (perhaps to the point of petulance?), and contained some things most conservatives would find agreeable. As an old boss of mine used to say, even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and Mr. Obama is right when he says that while “international opinion matters … America should never ask permission to protect our people, our homeland, or our way of life.” Dead right: Our conduct of our foreign affairs is not about popularity but protecting the security of our citizens, at home and abroad, and defending our vital interests.
Also, the president is to be applauded for noting that “respect for human rights is an antidote to instability and the grievances that fuel violence and terror.” This is a key reason why American support for international religious liberty and opposition to systemic and individual acts of persecution, the vast majority of which is directed against Christians, is so important. Yet if Mr. Obama truly believes what he says, why has he let the State Department’s ambassadorship for religious freedom remain vacant for nearly nine months?
The most substantial subtext of the speech was international cooperation and coordination. Mr. Obama seems so eager to build consensus and employ joint action (whether economic or political) with our friends (or, at least, our grudging non-enemies) that this pursuit has become an end in itself.
There is a difference between fostering international cooperation to achieve mutually desired ends, on the one hand, and being unduly concerned that if America exerts her vital interests, someone might look at us disapprovingly.
Nowhere in the speech did Mr. Obama note that in order to further the primary ends of American foreign policy (our security and essential interests), our friends must know we can be trusted and our adversaries know we must be feared. We strengthen friendships and build new ones by assuring our allies, whether in Israel or Poland or Australia, that by virtue of our military preparedness and consistency in diplomatic actions, we can be relied upon.
We deter aggression of all types – economic and electronic, military and via proxies – when those who oppose us know we not only have the capacity to defeat them but will use it. Deterrence only works if the threat of its use is real.
Arguably, this is a test our President has failed. His dramatic lurches last summer on Syria, his calls for massive reductions in defense spending, his dubious behavior toward Benjamin Netanyahu, his lugubrious bow to the Saudi king: these and many other things, small and large, have created a sense that America is neither resolute nor strong.
Vladimir Putin’s engulfment of Crimea shows how little the Russian dictator fears either the U.S. or NATO, something even the most dedicated Obamaphile should find chilling. Mr. Obama touted America’s “mobilization of world opinion and international institutions” as preventing further Russian aggression into Ukraine; would Putin have taken his initial step in Crimea had he any true wariness of the current occupant of the White House?
With respect to Iran, Mr. Obama is all over the map. Thankfully, he did say “we reserve all options to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” and we can hope he means it. But his comments are laced with terms like “multilateral channels,” “negotiations,” and building “coalitions.”
No sane person is calling for the U.S. to start bombing Iranian nuclear facilities, yet negotiations have not, to date, deterred Iran from pursuing nuclear weaponry. Do the tyrants in Tehran really fear decisive American military action? According to the May 27 Wall Street Journal, there is a “plausible new report” suggesting that “Tehran has kept active and intact its core team of (nuclear) weaponization researchers.”
Finally, Mr. Obama rejoices in destroying political opponents whose existence seems largely imaginary. “A strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naïve and unsustainable,” he said, and he’s right. However, it would be helpful to know who is calling for this. No serious American practitioner of international relations or military strategy wants to “invade” anyone. His foil is too convenient, his brush too broad, his alternatives simply false.
For followers of Jesus, contemplation of these matters can be disconcerting. Force should never be used unless necessary and only the force necessary should be used. These things are axiomatic to any Christian understanding of military conflict.
At the same time, Christians should be mindful of the irreducible paradoxes of military power: To ensure our peace and that of our allies, our enemies must fear the potency of our military. To prevent war, our adversaries must know we are willing to wage it. To gain international standing, we only give our word sparingly and then keep it meticulously. We lose the respect for which we long if our foreign policy is animated by a rather desperate effort to be seen as team-playing nice guys well-liked by everybody.
I fear that President Obama is constricted by his penchant for nuance. In his, he argued for an American foreign policy that is defined more as a litany of qualifications than assertive, clear statements. To lead is to decide and to stay constant with one’s decisions. In the often painful world of foreign policy, this is hard, but that it is hard makes it no less critical.
There is much more to say (Mr. Obama said a lot, from addressing cybersecurity and the Law of the Sea treaty to global climate change and terrorism). It is my hope that these observations will provide at least a basic framework for followers of Jesus to think about American military and diplomatic policies.
Christians should pray for our president, his senior advisors, our military leaders, our men and women in uniform, and our congressional leaders, that they would have the courage to defend America and the wisdom to know how to do so.
Rob Schwarzwalder, senior vice president of the Family Research Council previously served on the staffs of members of both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees.
Publication date: May 30, 2014