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The question does not specify any particular speech by President Barack Obama, so the following answer is based upon readings of the texts of his most recent foreign policy-related statements, the speech he delivered on September 10, 2014, at the White House, which addressed the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and, simply, as the Islamic State) and the statement he made the following day to commemorate the tragic events of September 11, 2001. In neither of these speeches does the president address foreign policy in a broader context than the problem of Middle Eastern and South Asian terrorism, although his comments on September 10 do include some parameters with respect to how he envisions foreign policy being carried out.
The threat to regional governments and the world from the Islamic State, which controls large swaths of Syrian and Iraqi territories, and which seeks to impose an exceptionally harsh form of Islamic law, or Sharia, wherever it rules, is subject to debate. Some analysts and commentators view the scale of that threat as minimal and restricted to the territory ISIL currently holds; others view the scale of threat far more ominously, with the organization’s capacity for destruction potentially extending well-beyond the current parameters of its mini-state. Certainly, if one believes the United States has a moral obligation to confront the kind of barbarity represented by ISIL, and/or if one believes that ISIL’s military successes pose a serious threat to U.S. interests and allies, then the president of the United States is expected to respond. This, however, is all possibly beside the point. From the broader perspective of U.S. foreign policy, it is President Obama’s comments regarding the U.S. role in the world and the expectation of working with other countries, especially those with a more direct, vested interest in ISIL’s defeat, that provide clues to his views of foreign policy. Most noteworthy in this respect, though, is how unexceptional the president’s comments are, insofar as they represent the same kind of boiler-plate position that most politicians, including most presidents, utter with equal ease and sincerity. President Obama emphasizes, as do all politicians, the preference to act internationally in consort with other nations. As he said on September 10:
“American power can make a decisive difference, but we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves, nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region. . . This is our strategy. And in each of these four parts of our strategy, America will be joined by a broad coalition of partners.”
The president is stating the obvious: that there are practical limits to what the United States can achieve in the Middle East by itself, and that political and military efforts supported by allied and friendly governments provides greater legitimacy for our actions while spreading the financial and military burdens among more nations. History has repeatedly illustrated, however, that the United States, alone among major powers, possesses the physical capabilities and moral proclivities needed to respond to situations like that involving ISIL. Only the United States has the ability to project meaningful military power to far-away regions of the world, and only the United States, despite its many miscalculations and sometimes morally and politically dubious motivations for acting abroad, is imbued with the idealistic notions of advancing greater causes than naked self-interest. Neither Russia nor China, two other countries with the physical capabilities to project military power abroad, are possessed of any such notion of moral commitment. It was in recognition of this reality that President Obama appends his expectations of multilateralism with acknowledgement of the unique role of the United States in world affairs:
“Abroad, American leadership is the one constant in an uncertain world. It is America that has the capacity and the will to mobilize the world against terrorists. It is America that has rallied the world against Russian aggression, and in support of the Ukrainian peoples' right to determine their own destiny. It is America — our scientists, our doctors, our know-how — that can help contain and cure the outbreak of Ebola. It is America that helped remove and destroy Syria's declared chemical weapons so they cannot pose a threat to the Syrian people — or the world — again. And it is America that is helping Muslim communities around the world not just in the fight against terrorism, but in the fight for opportunity, tolerance, and a more hopeful future.”
The presidential statements of September 10 and 11 were not designed to set forth any kind of grand vision for U.S. foreign policy; that was not the intent. These were speeches drafted for very specific occasions and limited to very specific contingencies. A more complete analysis of the president’s approach to foreign policy would require considerably more content than that provided in these two speeches, for instance, his speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York on May 28, 2014, during which he stated:
“Here’s my bottom line: America must always lead on the world stage. If we don’t, no one else will. The military that you have joined is, and always will be, the backbone of that leadership. But U.S. military action cannot be the only, or even primary, component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.”
Again, we have the seeming dichotomy that is an integral part of the conduct of foreign policy. We will act when our interests dictate it, but we prefer to act in accordance with international mandates and with other countries, despite American leadership being the sine qua non of such multilateralism:
“The United States will use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when our core interests demand it: when our people are threatened; when our livelihoods are at stake; when the security of our allies is in danger.”
“On the other hand, when issues of global concern do not pose a direct threat to the United States, when such issues are at stake, when crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction but do not directly threaten us, then the threshold for military action must be higher. In such circumstances, we should not go it alone. Instead, we must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action”
These comments could have been made by every president of the last 50 years. Whether President Obama’s reaffirmation of the need to act alone in defense of vital interests but with a strong preference for acting with others when possible is the basic proposition with which all presidents and most of the public agree.
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