strength through peace.
Skeptics on the left may be forgiven for responding to the President's speech with sharp accusations that he has said it all before, yet has failed to actually govern with said principles. But stated policy has to be articulated in ideal form, and with this address, the President is declaring his (continued) intent to administer a foreign policy based on restraint, diplomacy, international alliances, transparency, and non-military support of democracy abroad.
Mr. Obama reiterated—as all presidents do—his allegiance to the official US protocol for use of military force: for national security only; not to pursue our own gain or further our own vision. History always proves whether such declarations are based on authentic guiding principles, or whether, as in the administration immediately preceding this one, they are empty rhetoric. Stated policy, even when exposed as duplicitous, has value, if only to make starker its hypocrisy. But in this administration we have already observed the use of diplomacy, restraint, and multi-lateralism as dominant foreign policy tools.
Going forward, when compelled to use military force for our national security,
the President said this morning, we should be guided by our ever-clearer understanding, hard-won in Iraq and Afghanistan, that “we must never create one more enemy than we leave on the battle field." He urged Americans to view the economic and practical assistance we provide to developing countries to improve access to education, expand the availability of electricity and water, and support the development of better methods of farming and delivery of medicine not as an afterthought; not as 'a nice thing to do' existing apart from national security," but as a critical piece of what makes us safe, of what "shrinks the space in which terrorism grows.”
Certainly, if this is the policy to which Mr. Obama is committed, he has work to do. He still has serious, controversial, and complex problems to tackle, some involving significant loss of public confidence, as with public access to information about intelligence gathering and drone use; and the continued existence of the US military prison at Guantanamo. These are problems even many ardent Obama supporters feel he has taken too long to solve, or to which he has in fact contributed.
But perhaps it is more realistic to reserve judgment on the pace of Obama’s efforts to implement foreign policy based on his stated ideals. As in nearly every other realm of the federal government Obama was elected to administer, the state of foreign affairs in January of 2009 called first for a focus on undoing years of egregiously destructive policy. The national security framework bestowed upon the Obama administration was created and implemented by forces driven by macho, phobic, and mercenary motivations. And importantly, this framework was hardly a departure from those advocated by decades of previous presidential administrations.
In light of this context, President Obama has earned a measure of patience, and current efforts to implement a more progressive foreign policy must be recognized as ground-breaking. They must be evaluated by how they have performed against threats unprecedented in nature and scope. They must also be judged by how they have fared against extraordinary Congressional obstruction.
Today President Obama explicitly proclaimed a commitment to a progressive vision of US foreign policy. Pressure from the Left to see this vision realized will be important. But it should be balanced by an appreciation for the value of the commitment itself. Because ultimately, this presidency will be seen as one that significantly advanced progressive American ideals.