Thursday, May 29, 2014


No need to go back to Elizabeth I's speech at Tilbury to be roused by oratory.  After all, in one single address to the nation President Kennedy sent the United States to the moon.  The expectations for President Obama's commencement speech at West Point were high. The critical barrage against what is perceived as the Administration's muddled foreign policy is relentless. The silence of the White House on the many bumps in the political road has been deafening, so everybody expected the President to come forward with a global strategic vision.

The President spoke, but unlike Caesar he neither convinced nor won over the doubters.  He stuck mostly to banalities.  Instead of suggesting a remedy to heal the fraction lines which are appearing worldwide, he went along with them, more passive than pro-active.  He is certainly right to argue against the use of military force as an "umbrella policy," but standing shy of projecting power only creates Lebensraum for the foes and disquiet among allies. Russia and China continue their territorial and maritime ambitions, unchecked almost, and the US allies feel lost in the labyrinth of American ad hoc initiatives.

Obama missed a chance. His sincerity is probably genuine but his variable statements come over as amateurish and diplomatically unconvincing. While Moscow and China pursue unabated the consolidation or completion of their spheres of influence, the United States looks more and more entangled in pin prick interventions which change nothing while troubling all. The situation has become so absurd that Washington looks desperate, almost depending upon Tehran to score a diplomatic success(?)  The chooser has become the beggar.

In Washington both Republicans and Democrats are perplexed. The accumulation of bad tidings is only aggravated by a perceived reluctance of the White House to correct and intervene. Strength is more than the accumulation of power (the lessons from the former Soviet Union had better be learned).  Weight alone might lead to obesity and inaction.  Power is transubstantiating, a nexus of quantitative might and qualitative perception by others. Today the American might is there but the use thereof is in doubt, hence undermining both its potential and its credibility. Undoubtedly power is made of many components, not the least of economical content, soft power, structural ambition and arms control.  Alas, free-trade looks hard to come by (faulty US Congress), the Chinese "dream" is pushing against its American counterpart, and the "exceptionalism" got punched after the NSA, Benghazi, Syria and VA fiascos.  When one is perceived by others as looking weak, the chances are that one might become ill indeed.  A placebo might bring temporary relief but in the end "more"of the same may no longer be enough.

The President is right to have put an end to the ill-conceived wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and to have identified the morphology of the new terrorism. He should nevertheless  come forward with a renewed American codex which addresses the world as it has become.  Conceptual neglect comes with often empty gestures and irrelevant photo-ops. Shaking the hand of Raul Castro is not a policy, neither is a stroll on the Maidan.   Parading by proxy on various fronts only increases frustration when inflated gestures are not followed up by action. Hamlet's monologue does not work when the house is on fire.  Yet again Obama's reference to hammer and nails send us back to the toolbox metaphor.  Bystanders are starting to fear that the hammer is missing.   Only the nails pile up.

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