President Obama and his aides heralded his commencement speech at the United States Military Academy at West Point on Wednesday as a big moment, when he would lay out his foreign policy vision for the remainder of his term and refute his critics. The address did not match the hype, was largely uninspiring, lacked strategic sweep and is unlikely to quiet his detractors, on the right or the left.
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In his speech, Mr. Obama tried to push back against critics who say he has ceded America’s post-World War II dominance. The question, as he correctly put it, is “not whether America will lead but how we will lead” and he reasserted that “isolationism is not an option.” Mr. Obama was right when he suggested there would be no serious negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program without his approach to American leadership.
But he provided little new insight into how he plans to lead in the next two years, and many still doubt that he fully appreciates the leverage the United States has even in a changing world. Falling back on hackneyed phrases like America is the “indispensable nation” told us little.
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Mr. Obama’s talk of the need for more transparency about drone strikes and intelligence gathering, including abusive surveillance practices, was ludicrous. His administration had to be dragged into even minimal disclosures on both topics. Just Tuesday, the administration said it wanted to make further deletions from a legal memo on drone strikes that a court ordered it to make public.
Mr. Obama’s comments on China and Russia barely touched on how he plans to manage two major countries that have turned increasingly aggressive. Pledging anew to close the jail at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, which Congress has blocked, was, at this point, little more than a reassuring gesture.
What a tired, lame, lacking second term this has turned out to be.