The Speech President Obama Meant to Give at West Point

By Michael Weiss

When I first spoke at West Point in 2009, we still had 100,000 troops in Iraq, and Joe Biden bet everyone his vice presidency that we’d have at least 10,000 today. We do not, but Joe is still vice president. Iraq, meanwhile, is a country largely in thrall to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and its civil war has returned with a vengeance. More than 4,000 Iraqis have died in the first five months of 2014 alone, but that’s all right because our tide of war has receded and the New York Times tends to bury this news well below the fold.

In Afghanistan, America’s longest war is now drawing to a proud close. We plan to leave no US troop presence there after 2016 and we hope the Taliban understands. Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda’s core leadership in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan has relocated to the border region between Iraq and Syria, which is at least closer to some of our remaining allies in the Middle East. The CIA likes to say that Al-Qaeda’s new center of gravity in the Levant is the single worst threat to our national security that we now face. And I’ll let them say this now that my re-election campaign is over and it sounds scary enough to justify why I didn’t get more involved in Syria in the first place.

Let’s just leave it at this: the United States faces no direct threat to its national security because several presidents ago, America concluded its Cold War with Russia, once and for all.

Now, some will argue that the last five years have seen a decline in American leadership. They will point to the fact that, probably around the time my party loses the Senate, China will replace the United States as the world’s largest economy in real terms. They will say that a resurgent and revanchist Russia, which has just invaded and annexed a sovereign European territory roughly the size of Maryland, looks at America as a dormant superpower whose bluff is easy to call. They will say that Bashar al-Assad is still in power in Syria three years after I said he must step aside, as if this suggests that we no longer enforce our red lines on dictatorial aggression.

To these critics, I would only pose a few simple questions. Can any nation on earth amass a hashtag campaign on Twitter faster than the United States of America? Has any nation in the history of the world held so many international conferences in Switzerland in so short a period of time? Does any one constitutional republic have a former leader so easy to mock and blame for all the problems that have ensued well after he has gone?

The answer, of course, is no.

America is doing just fine.

And Switzerland, as it happens, is the gift that keeps on giving. It was after a meeting with Swiss President Didier Burkhalter that Vladimir Putin apparently decided not to dispatch some 40,000 Russian troops stationed at his border into Ukraine. A nonaligned ski resort nation famous for cuckoo clocks, chocolate, commodities traders, tax havens, and banking secrecy laws managed to halt the Russian bear in its tracks. We, on the other hand, passed a series of sanctions against a few Kremlin officials and cronies and a handful of mid- to low-level financial institutions, which were mostly laughed off. We also sent a few hundred soldiers into Poland, Estonia, and other places as a minimum show of support for our NATO allies, which fear they’ll be invaded by Russia next. These are the allies, I should remind you, that had been telling us to worry about Russia when I was telling Dmitry Medvedev that after my re-election his boss wouldn’t have to worry about missile defense systems on some of their territories.

The result?

Today Russia is isolated. Except of course in Germany, where Rheinmetall, a defense contractor, trained exactly the sort of Russian combat troops and special forces that seized Crimea in March and where 300,000 German jobs depend on exports to Russia. And except for in France, which just sold Putin two Mistral-class amphibious warships. And in Britain, where, thanks to the proliferation of pro-Kremlin oligarchs, Russian influence in the banking and energy sectors and its co-optation of Britain’s political and business classes have never been greater. It’s also not that isolated in China, which just inked a $400 billion gas deal with Moscow in one of those genuine pivots to Asia we keep hearing about.

But everywhere else: isolated.

As for Ukraine, its uncertain future is certain. The government in Kiev has now to wrest control of its eastern and southern regions from pro-Russian separatists and also more battle-hardened North Caucasian irregulars who have turned up to replace the former. These fifth columnists, many of whom are Russian nationals, have surface-to-air missiles with which they’ve shot down Ukrainian helicopters. They’re also being supervised by Russian military intelligence.

The best part is that we achieved all this without firing a shot ourselves. We didn’t even have to send things like body armor, night vision goggles, helmets, Kevlar vests, and spare tires to Ukraine’s embattled military. Joe Biden’s son, however, did join the board of Ukraine's largest private gas provider in a show of solidarity with the people of Maidan.

Let me now address a long-running debate in our foreign policy establishment by willfully misrepresenting it.

There exists today no serious person in punditry or politics who believes that every crisis in the world demands an American military response. But it’s a convenient canard to argue that such people do exist, and that they are many and wrong. To these phantom fanatics I say again: rarely have I seen the exercise of military power provide a definitive answer to a bloody crisis. As someone who believes that his uncle liberated Auschwitz, I know of which I speak.

John McCain does not want to send US troops into Syria. But I like to pretend that he does. My strategic communications team in the White House spent literally minutes coming up with the clever lie that conflated a variety of options for greater US involvement in that country – sorry, there were no good options – with “boots on the ground.”

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Michael Weiss is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the Institute of Modern Russia. He tweets at @michaeldweiss.

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