Why World War One?

The long Failure of Western Arms.

Obama's West Point Speech

President Obama’s West Point Speech 29/5/2014.

This important policy speech reflects on the recent past – the 2.5 million Americans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, the climb out of recession towards a stronger economy, and America’s commitment to being the world power committed to extending peace and prosperity around the world. Obama talks against the perspective that seeks withdrawal from every area of conflict where American interests are not involved, and for engagement as the world’s policeman to address wrongs that might arise, because these wrongs have a danger of spreading.

Then Obama warns against a militarist response with an historical reflection calling especially on Eisenhower. It is worth quoting in full.

But to say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution. Since World War Two, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint, but from our willingness to rush into military adventures - without thinking through the consequences; without building international support and legitimacy for our action, or levelling with the American people about the sacrifice required. Tough talk draws headlines, but war rarely conforms to slogans. As General Eisenhower, someone with hard-earned knowledge on this subject, said at this ceremony in 1947: "War is mankind's most tragic and stupid folly; to seek or advise its deliberate provocation is a black crime against all men."

Like Eisenhower, this generation of men and women in uniform know all too well the wages of war. That includes those of you at West Point. Four of the service-members who stood in the audience when I announced the surge of our forces in Afghanistan gave their lives in that effort. More were wounded. I believe America's security demanded those deployments. But I am haunted by those deaths. I am haunted by those wounds. And I would betray my duty to you, and to the country we love, if I sent you into harm's way simply because I saw a problem somewhere in the world that needed fixing, or because I was worried about critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak.

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 US 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.

The one-liner is superb. “Just because he have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.” But note what Obama is arguing against – the position that “every problem has a military solution”. Partly this is the Aunt Sally which he is demolishing, rather than a statement of what American politicians have believed, but the position has had enough weight to provoke military adventurism, as Obama explains. And this needs to stop.

Obama then makes four points. First, America will act in self-defence, but where no direct threat to the States exists, the threshold for military action must be higher. “In such circumstances, we should not go it alone.” Diplomacy, co-operation and other tools will be used first. Second, the nature of terrorism has changed. It used to be centred on Al Qaida. Now it is much more dissimilated in a range of locales, and opposing this terrorism means a range of partnerships rather than so much direct action, although that may sometimes be necessary. Where direct action is necessary, the United States must make sure that it acts in accord with its values, is transparent, and makes sure that others are not damaged. Third, the United States must act though the international institutions of peace, justice and security and must especially uphold and conform to the international rule of law. Finally, Obama points out that the real driver of change world-wide will be the growth of democracy and human rights in all nations, and America will do all it can to encourage that.

The speech then finishes with “God bless the United States of America” obviously meant sincerely. This speech signals a move away from the strong militarism which marked the period of Ronald Reagan, George Bush Senior and George Bush Junior. The United States remains internationalist, committed to the rule of law and democracy. It is a good speech, charting a better way, but in one way it remains deeply unselfcritical. It does not acknowledge the extent to which American militarism and the selling of weapons worldwide to contributed to terrorism, tyranny and military dictatorships, but this speech opens the way for that realisation to emerge ever more strongly.