Obama: ‘The best hammer doesn’t mean every problem is a nail’

The president tells West Point’s grads that the U.S. must continue to lead but be smarter about foreign intervention

Ray’s thoughts

President Obama's critics call his foreign policy weak-kneed, confused, feckless. America's allies are unsure of the country's resolve. His defenders say he is getting the U.S. out of lengthy wars. He promised he'd be far more selective about the use of military power in the world, and there are no American casualties from Syria, Libya or Ukraine. His speech rested on two main pillars: the U.S. remains the world's indispensable nation, and there isn't a military solution for every problem.

As the commencement speaker at West Point, President Barack Obama told the 1,000 cadets in their dress uniforms that the U.S. must always lead on the world stage and the military is the backbone of that leadership.

But "U.S. military action cannot be the only or even primary component of our leadership in every instance," said Obama.

"Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail."

Though United States forces are out of Iraq and leaving Afghanistan, the president emphasized that the lessons of Sept. 11 are still with us and terrorism remains the No. 1 threat.

Obama announced he'll ask Congress for $5 billion to create a Counterterrorism Partnership Fund. He said the fund would pay to train forces fighting Al-Qaeda in Yemen, support peacekeeping in Somalia and Libya and assist French operations in Mali.

Next week the president will make a trip to Europe to bolster ties and move public opinion in his direction as it pertains to foreign policy.

The president claims to be presenting a third path between isolationism and interventionism with a more soft-power-based, multilateral approach. Is this accurate? And is it the right policy?

We consulted a panel of experts for the Inside Story.

What is your reaction to the president’s speech?

The speech was effective in laying out exactly when and how the U.S. will use military force and how we will integrate partners and allies into our security efforts around the world. The president did not talk about a few important issues, one being the need to refine and repeal the Authorization for the Use of Military Force from 2001, and he did not lay out a specific vision for how the U.S. will follow through on our commitment to democracy and human rights. I hope the latter will be forthcoming from Ambassador [to the U.N. Samantha] Power in the coming weeks.


We had Obama’s speech at the National Defense College last year. Why is this foreign policy speech any different? Why now?

Well, I think the president has been effective on many fronts. With what is happening with Ukraine and Iran, he has been very effective, but his administration not been as adept at explaining its strategy and policies. That has left him vulnerable to conservative attacks, and they have been starting to make a mark. 


Was Obama dealt a tough hand? To what extent should we assess his record with an appreciation of these challenges?

Well, yes. He has had a mixed record, but the fact that the reckless policies of the Bush administration made it very hard for the American public to be engaged internationally has limited him. The public is war-weary. It has made it hard for him to have an activist foreign policy when the public is not behind it. We saw that in Syria. It was not an unusual request — we have done similar things in Kosovo and elsewhere — but was met with a massive wall of resistance, largely because people saw it as a possible first step toward another war in the Middle East.

The president claims to be presenting a third way between isolationism and interventionism with a more soft-power-based, multilateral approach. Is this true? And if so, is it the right policy?

Well, it's a bit of a straw man, because with Ukraine and Syria you don’t necessarily have the extremes in the mainstream that the president discussed. A lot of people realize there are limits to what we can do militarily in the world, but very few people are saying nothing matters until lives are at the water's edge. He is not taking the middle road here. In Ukraine, we have done very little in terms of military aid. In Syria, three years into the war, we finally have talk about helping the rebels. A middle road would be welcome, but it is just not one we have seen in the last five years.


Do you advocate more military aid in Ukraine and Syria? In Ukraine, wouldn’t that risk inflaming an already divided country? And in Syria, is the opposition coherent enough for it to be a worthy investment?

Well, with Syria the ship may have sailed. A lot has changed in three years at war. A lot of moderates and secular defectors of Assad’s army are either dead or in refugee camps. Three years of inaction and red lines that have not been followed up on have allowed things to deteriorate severely. At this point, Syria is looking a lot like the Spanish Civil War, where both sides are lamentable. In fact, I am wary that if we do start arming rebels now, we’ll choose the wrong ones.

In Ukraine, building up the military would not be good without a broader strategy. A broader strategy would be trying to liberate Central Europe from Russian gas. It would be creating a moral narrative like we did in the Cold War, based on human rights and rule of law. There is a lot of talk of diplomacy, but not a lot of actual diplomacy.

How should the U.S. be reacting to a world that is now populated by emerging powers?

It should react by sharing power, not dominating power. My book basically says that American hegemony through which it can define the world order and institutions is over. The unipolar order is over. I call it a multiplex world — like a multiplex cinema. You don’t have one show anymore, you have more than one show going on at the same time.

The U.N. Security Council and IMF are the two most important institutions, and they are still based on U.S.-Western hegemony. We need to move toward the G-20 model, where emerging powers share leadership and are alongside the U.S.

Also, the U.S. must be very restrained in using military force. There is a tendency, even under Obama, despite what he says, to use military force as a tool. In the fight against terror and elsewhere it is still overused.

Trying to work with other countries that are not like-minded is important. There was a hope that the U.S. could co-opt China, India and Brazil because they have market economies. But they are not abiding by American norms, just as Russia did not. That tells you that it is pretty difficult to get rising powers to follow their needs.

They cannot just share power, but must also share leadership. The U.S. cannot expect to lead on every issue, but allow others to lead. Even in this speech, Obama still spoke about cooperation in terms of U.S. leadership. Why not let other countries lead? Regional groupings like the African Union are a good model.


How can the U.S. share power and make itself more open economically?

One of the changes that is happening is that for the first time in a long time the leading military power is not the top economic power. China is top economically, and the U.S. is the best militarily. The world’s institutions must share power to reflect this new reality. Why should we always have the IMF led by a Frenchman and the World Bank led by an American?

And the U.S. has always had a very ambivalent view of regionalism. It is not enough to permit them to exist; they must be empowered.

It is a multipolar world and all the actors are interdependent, so the leadership must move toward accommodation.

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