walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: May 25, 2013
The President’s Speech


President Obama has a strategy for American counterterror policy and he is sticking to it; that was the core message of the speech the President gave Thursday at the National Defense University.

Confronted by a troubling strategic and political situation in the world at large as well as in the complex conflict that he does not want to call a ‘global war on terror,’ the President offered a careful, thoughtful speech that doubled down on the core foreign policy themes he has sought to promote since accepting the Democratic presidential nomination in the summer of 2008.

The President is a man who believes that speeches matter; his critics sometimes accuse him of believing that making speeches and making policy are the same thing. He has no doubt learned in the White House that this is not always true; nevertheless, President Obama does not take major foreign policy addresses lightly. Like his speech in Cairo and his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 2009, yesterday’s speech was intended as a comprehensive and definitive statement of the ideas by which he intends to be guided in the remaining years of his second term. Both supporters and critics of the President should study it carefully; it is the best available window into the mind of the man onto whose shoulders the responsibility for American security rests.

On reading the speech one first notes what it isn’t: this isn’t a speech about American grand strategy or about American foreign policy as a whole. It is a speech about how to deal with the threat to America’s domestic security that stems from groups and individuals saturated in jihadi ideology. The speech has nothing to say about whether the United States should continue to protect the flow of oil from the Middle East to the world’s markets, much less whether we should accept a nuclear Iran. There was no mention of a pivot to Asia or relations with China. The speech was what the President hopes the campaign against terror will henceforth be: limited, focused, and isolated from the rest of American foreign policy.

The second thing one notes is the studied defensiveness of the speech. This is a President who feels that wounding and dangerous criticisms have been made of his approach. The President is deeply concerned with the criticisms his policies have attracted from the legalists on the left, less so with criticisms from the multiculturalist left and not at all with his critics among the humanitarian hawks and the right.  The legalists accuse him of counterterrorist policies that trample on the Constitution and the laws of nations; much of the speech is taken up with a defense of some policies and a promise to modify or revise others.

The legalist left is a relatively small but well placed, well organized and well funded set of organizations and activists who believe that strict adherence to formal standards of international law, and the deepening and extension of the role of law in international affairs constitute humanity’s best hope for securing freedom, peace and, given what 21st century great power war could produce in the way of destruction, survival. For such people, the greatest risks in war come less from the actions of our enemies than from the actions we ourselves might take that weaken the hold of those international laws on which ultimately, in their view, everything depends. Piracy would be a lesser evil and a lesser threat in this view than an extralegal response to piracy from governments; piracy is an unpleasant nuisance but the weakening of international legal norms is a calamity.

Although some members of the legalist left are also leftists on economic issues, legalist liberal internationalists are mostly an upper middle class and above movement rather than a populist movement for economic justice. Many people on Wall Street both now and historically have supported a vision of world politics that holds law as the paramount good – given the role that international legal norms play in securing investor rights around the world. It is the sort of idealism that an elite law school culture warmly embraces, and it is a common ground where Wall Street bundlers, diplomats and academic intellectuals can and do frequently meet. It is an important part of President Obama’s personal milieu and it is an important part of his base.

For the President, taking on the arguments of the legalist left and articulating his position vis a vis its beliefs is important for both personal and political reasons. In this speech as in his Nobel acceptance speech, President Obama is advocating what Reinhold Niebuhr would call a “Christian realist” position against the absolutist claims of the legalist left. History can’t be simplified into a set of legalistic formulae and there are times when a state must move into “the House of War.” There is a higher justice and a higher law than the codes the legalists worship, and the head of state in a democratic republic must sometimes exercise sovereign power in legitimate war.

This one of President Obama’s core convictions, and it is one of the qualities that make him larger than the milieu from which he springs. Without it, he could not be an effective president of the United States; even with it, he remains a cautious actor on the international stage. He can and does go beyond what the legalists would allow, but at the same time he feels compelled to address their arguments and concerns, and to test the validity of his actions against stringent criteria: is the war itself just? Are the means used proportional to the ends to be gained? Has due care been taken to preserve innocent life? Is the conflict being waged in accordance with existing law so far as this is possible under existing circumstances?

The President’s speech is best understood as a sober but passionate defense of his war policy on these lines. He believes that he is consistently Niebuhrian in his approach to war, and that his departures from legalism are both limited and necessary. He is aware that rational people can disagree about this, and he makes no claim to infallibility, but his convictions are honestly arrived at and clearly presented. He has done his best to wage war in the right way, and so long as the war is on his hands he intends to continue on this path, and where possible, as experience teaches and as a fluid situation offers new opportunities, he will move his counterterrorism policy out of the House of War into the House of Peace. The logic of war will fade in importance, and the power of law will grow.

At first glance it appears strange to pitch a major foreign policy address so heavily toward one constituency. The arch-legalists have the power to write eloquent op-eds and to dent the administration’s reputation among a certain segment of the public, but it is hard to argue that the legalist left or indeed the whole left is in a position to thwart the President’s war policy. No antiwar tsunami is threatening Congressional funding for the war or forcing the President to change his handling of Guantanamo inmates or to cut back on drones.  The resolution authorizing the use of force in response to 9/11 is in no serious danger of repeal.

Indeed, from a purely political point of view, the President’s speech added to his political difficulties by introducing a legislative agenda that lawmakers in his own party must quietly wish would go away. (Few Democrats up for re-election are looking forward to a vote on releasing Guantanamo inmates, and the last time we looked, drones had a higher favorable rating among the American people than the President and Congress combined.)

That said, the speech does serve some important political ends. It always helps the President among the public at large when he distinguishes himself from the legalists. Americans don’t want presidents who gratuitously trample on international law, but they also don’t like presidents who subordinate the defense of the homeland to paper edicts by bloodless international civil servants. When President Obama says that he believes in a commonsense interpretation of the law that is consistent with an unyielding determination to protect the American people, most Americans will say that he has struck the proper balance.

He must also hope that his reasoned defense of his nuanced position on the role of law in the war on terror will soften the opposition to his policies now growing on the left. The recent string high profile national security journalism cases have increased the interest of the mainstream press in the possibility that the administration’s conduct of the war has insufficiently prioritized the Bill of Rights. The President is not worried that Congress will repeal his powers overseas or force him to close Guantanamo prematurely if he doesn’t develop a preemptive plan to close it on his own. But he is deeply worried that the press, frightened and angered by what it sees as attacks on its most vital privileges, will rediscover the tradition of adversarial journalism. He is asking Congress to curtail his war powers (knowing that this is unlikely to happen) in the hopes that he can convince the press that he isn’t addicted to power.

We’ll see if this works, but it is clear that the President is far more concerned at this point about those who attack him from the left as too hot about the war than he is about the people on the right who think his approach is too cool. He is less worried about being seen as another Jimmy Carter than he is about being seen as another Lyndon Johnson: a Democratic president trapped in a war that his party doesn’t support.

Next up: an assessment of the President’s ideas about the future of the war.

[President Obama speaks at NDU, courtesy of Getty Images]

show comments
  • wigwag

    “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence;” if you haven’t seen it, you should. I think its one of the ten best American movies ever made. I bring this up because as I was reading Professor Mead’s fascinating post, I couldn’t get this movie out of my mind.

    The plot is simple; an Eastern lawyer (played by Jimmy Stewart) is relocating to a small town in the Western hinterland where the law isn’t worshipped quite as reverently as it was from the big city that he left. The stage coach he’s in is robbed at gunpoint by a gun slinging outlaw with the peculiar name of Liberty Valence (played by Lee Marvin). Stewart is roughed up and left for dead and his prize possession, his law books are stolen and scattered to the wind by Valence and his mob of outlaws.

    An uneducated, decent and muscular rancher (played by John Wayne) rescues Stewart and saves his life. The lawyer ingratiates himself to the new town by teaching the innkeepers illiterate daughter to read and by starting a school. In the meantime, Liberty Valence continues to make mayhem, sow terror and create a state of anarchy. The Stewart character complains about Liberty’s lawless behavior but the outlaw laughs in his face and challenges Stewart to a duel; a challenge that Stewart foolishly accepts.

    As the duel begins, John Wayne hides in the shadows; the shots ring out and unbelievably, Jimmy Stewart is merely wounded while the heinous outlaw lays dead. The town rejoices that Liberty’s reign of anarchy is over; Jimmy Stewart is lionized as a hero; he becomes the man who shot Liberty Valence.

    There’s only one problem; unbeknownst to everyone, it wasn’t Stewart who killed Valence, it was the brave rancher who, all along, had been the only man brave enough to stand up to the outlaw. Hiding in the shadow, it was a shot from his gun that killed Valence. He had saved Jimmy Stewart’s life a second time.

    Stewart’s reputation as the man who shot Liberty Valence catapults him into a political career. He’s elected governor of the new state. He then becomes a two term U.S. senator, then the American ambassador to Great Britain. Eventually he becomes his Party’s nominee for Vice President of the United States. Even better; he gets the girl. The innkeeper’s daughter who Stewart had taught to read agrees to Stewart’s proposal of marriage even though John Wayne’s character had loved her all along.

    Even after Stewart learns that it was not he who killed Valence but Wayne; he decides to say nothing. As the accolades for him pile up and as his political and financial success continue to increase, Stewart remains silent.

    The movie ends with Stewart and his wife leaving town after attending the rancher’s funeral. It wasn’t the lawyer who killed Valence and ended his reign of anarchy, it was the tough, uneducated but decent rancher, slow to anger, but quick with a gun. As Stewart and his wife board the train to head back east, the conductor greats the warmly. Stewart thanks him and the conductor grins. “Nothings too good for the man who shot Liberty Valence” he says. Stewart stares out of the train window and remains silent.
    If there is a better metaphor for the legalistic liberals that Professor Mead writes about in this post than Stewart’s character from the movie, I would like to know what it is. Inept, effete, and sanctimonious, the liberal legalists that Obama was trying to placate with his speech may think that their resort to legalism makes the world a better and safer place, but they are as deluded as Jimmy Stewart was. It’s a muscular America and the willingness to prudently use American power where necessary which is what saves the world from anarchy. Whatever these arrogant and pampered elites may think, their references to legalism don’t prot

    • Corlyss

      Love the analysis, Wig. Great parallel to Obama. Spot on all the way down to “they’re dangerous.”

      • wigwag

        Thank you, Corlyss for the kind words. If you haven’t seen “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” I highly recommend it. It was one of John Ford’s two greatest movies. The other was “The Searchers” which also starred John Wayne. Both movies are as fresh today as they were 50 years ago and both touch on themes that are intensely relevant to contemporary America and its place in the world.

        • Corlyss

          Your reference to MWSLV couldn’t have been more timely. A friend has been trying to get me to see it for donkey’s ages, and we were discussing it just a month or so ago. I was never interested. My problem with it wasn’t that it is a western – I’m a big fan. I’m passionate too about Ford’s cavalry trilogy, esp. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. My problem with MWSLV is the clips I’ve seen from it lacked stunningly contrasting B&W cinematography and epic scenery, for me the major reasons to have a western. MWSLV always seemed to me to be both stage-bound and claustrophobic. In fact, my friend is a regular reader of WRM and shot me a link to your remarks before I’d had a chance to check in yesterday morning. I told him after your stunning analysis I simply HAD to see the movie.

          It’s funny too that you should see MWSLV in operatic terms. I’m a recovering opera fanatic and at the height of my addiction I used to think in terms of what stories would make good operas. I’ll let you know what I think after I see the movie.

          • wigwag


            A particular scene in the movie that is also worth focusing on takes place in the saloon after the Jimmy Stewart character supposedly guns down the Lee Marvin character. Valance’s henchmen are in the saloon calling for Stewart to be lynched. John Wayne drives them away but then becomes incensed when his farmhand, Pompey, is refused a drink because the bartender refuses to serve a black man.

            The movie was released in 1962. Audiences of the time would have found the message conveyed by this scene completely unambiguous.

            I hope you enjoy the film.

    • Baby Bunny

      That was one of the best examples of how things now are that I’ve ever read! What a wonderfully eye opening and thought provoking comment. Thank you! Oh, and I couldn’t agree more!

  • Anthony

    Stipulation: American power yet remains number one in world….

    “Confronted by a troubling strategic and political situation in world at large….” “the time has come to think the unthinkable: the era of American dominance in international affairs may well be coming to an end…. Global leaders – whether policymakers or intellectuals – bear a responsibility to prepare their societies for impending global shifts…. Americans need to be told a simple, mathematical truth. With 3% of world’s population, the US can no longer dominate the rest of the world…But the belief that America is the only virtuous country, the sole beacon of light in a dark and unstable world, continues to shape many Americans’ worldview.”

    Now, whether the idealism of an elite law school culture embraces POTUS policies going forward ought not detract from aforementioned as it relates vision of world engagement – inside (informed by Niebuhr’s arguments) and outside of United States.

    • Corlyss

      The only way American dominance in international affairs might be coming an end is if we keep electing to the White House Democrats who think American dominance is too costly, too unequal, and too remote for them to get any strokes from. IOW it will be decline by policy choice, much as postwar British governments were perpetrating on Britain before Maggie Thatcher took the helm.

      • Anthony

        Take the quote in context and don’t put personal interpretation on it; for entire author’s position see forum on the future of American Power – Kishore Mahbubani.

        • Corlyss

          So you don’t agree with the envious third-worlder?

  • Corlyss

    “This is a President who feels that wounding and dangerous criticisms have been made of his approach.”
    Only because his approach has been callously ineffective at accomplishing anything 1) he wanted or 2) is good for the US in the long run. The problem as I see it is he hasn’t been criticized enough by anybody, never mind people who matter.

  • Jim Luebke

    “Many people on Wall Street both now and historically have supported a vision of world politics that holds law as the paramount good – given the role that international legal norms play in securing investor rights around the world.”

    But they too often fail to see the other side of this feedback loop — the financial and economic strength that these bring has to contribute to an unassailably strong national defense (capable of being projected worldwide) that makes those international treaties worth more than the paper they’re written on.

  • ljgude

    I can’t say that the legalists have ever impressed me for a moment with their Lilliputian attempts to tie down great powers with a thousand threads. The proactive peace prize was I suppose an advanced reward for supporting that kind of position. For intending the complete elimination of nuclear weapons as opposed to dealing (or apparently not dealing) with the difficult realities, like Iran.

  • Tom

    Part of the problem is that Obama isn’t really Niebuhrian at all. If he were, he would have been much more chary of intervening in Libya, and his rhetoric rarely evidences the Niebuhrian understanding of man’s limitations.

    • Corlyss

      Progs/Dems/Liberals so rarely think tragically about human nature that I believe there’s something defective in their genetic makeup. Time and time again Progs/Dems/Liberals exhibit a stunning capacity for self-delusion about the perfectibility of human nature, about their own capacity to recreate the Garden of Eden, if only everyone would do as the Progs ordered them to do. They have no appreciation for their own tyrannical tendencies. And David Horowitz observed in his C-SPAN Book TV In Depth appearance 10/07, “If you believe that you can end war, poverty, and racism forever, what crime will you NOT commit, what lie will you NOT tell? That’s why progressives have committed such horrendous autrocities and told such big lies in the 20th and 21st Centuries.” As Robert Kaplan noted in his Warrior Politics, modern liberals have lost the capacity to think tragically. It was the Founding Fathers’ grounding in ancient history and The Western Cannon, including the Bible, that enabled them to think tragically and to thus craft a system of government that accounted for the flaws inherent in human nature and deploy means of minimizing the impact of those flaws.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2015 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service