Obama’s Audiences

President Obama Delivers Commencement Address At West PointWest Point’s graduating cadets were patriotic props for President Obama’s “major speech” on foreign policy. Heavy advertisement of the speech, pre and post, tells us that others were his intended audience. The speech was a defense of his conduct of foreign policy against critics whom he did not name but characterized gratuitously, together with a promise to double down on that conduct in the future.

So it really wasn’t directed at foreign friends or foes. It was an act of domestic politics, and of “major” importance, because Obama’s decisions had been criticized unusually heavily in these election-campaign months—including by persons who normally pay little attention to foreign affairs. His audience was really the loyal media whose tolerance he may have exceeded, and even some of his political base.

The technique that Obama used to reach the newly crucial “low information voters” is one that lazy freshmen take away from “Writing 101” courses: build two opposing straw men with unattractive generalities, and place yourself squarely in the moderate middle between them with attractive generalities.

Thus Obama distanced himself from those who “think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak” and abjured “a strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks,” as if anyone were advocating such a strategy. And he set himself apart from nameless “self-described realists”—the only example of whom he implied was no less than George Washington—who argue that “conflicts in Syria or Ukraine or the Central African Republic are not ours to solve.”

Not that the President affirmed that they are ours to solve, you understand—only that the proposition that they aren’t amounts to “American isolationism.”

Then, rising majestically above these unreasonable alternatives, he set forth the kind of world he would like, “a world where schoolgirls are not kidnapped; where individuals aren’t slaughtered because of tribe or faith or political belief . . . a world of greater freedom and tolerance,” and he promised to “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.”

Such rhetoric shows the Obama team’s infantile intellectual level as well as its contempt for its audience. And it further challenges the media’s will to keep believing in him.

The President, recall, had embarrassed his media supporters by switching from several “red lines” of menace toward Syria’s Assad regime to effectively guaranteeing its permanence via a fraudulent agreement with Russia. At West Point, he continued the equivocation:

I made a decision that we should not put American troops into the middle of this increasingly sectarian civil war [in Syria], and I believe that is the right decision.

But then:

I will work with Congress to ramp up support for those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists and brutal dictators.

More recently, he had blustered about stopping Vladimir Putin from imposing Moscow’s will on Ukraine, but tailored U.S. actions to the diminutive dimensions of the German business community’s willingness to displease the Kremlin. So, at West Point, he claimed that his coordination with the European allies had “isolated Russia” (even as Russia had concluded the energy deal of the century with China) and had provided “a chance for the Ukrainian people to choose their future—without us firing a shot.”

He had blustered about stopping Iran’s nuclear weapons program, then concluded an agreement that incorporates that program. Of this he said at West Point: “for the first time in a decade, we have a very real chance of achieving a breakthrough agreement, one that is more effective and durable than what we could have achieved through the use of force.”

In sum, he challenged an Obama-friendly press corps to re-label as “American leadership” and “American strength” what they have judged as Obama’s failures. By so doing, he asks them to choose between their partisan loyalty and their intellectual integrity—somewhat as the man who, having been caught in flagrante, asked his wife: “Who are you gonna believe, me or you lyin’ eyes?”

The speech’s only concrete commitment was a domestic one offered to his political base: “Next year, I intend to make sure America is out front in putting together a global framework to preserve our planet.” The villains of this “foreign policy” address were stateside: “We can’t call on others to make commitments to combat climate change if a whole lot of our political leaders deny that it is taking place.” These enemies of the planet are also dumb enemies of peace: “We can’t try to resolve problems in the South China Sea when we have refused to make sure that the Law of the Sea Convention is ratified by the United States.”

Neither in that speech nor anywhere else has Obama, or anyone else, explained how a rise or fall of “x” percent of the 0.04 percent of the earth’s atmosphere made up of carbon dioxide has ever raised or lowered the earth’s temperature by “y” degrees, any more than anyone has ventured to explain how U.S. ratification of the Law of the Sea Convention might dissuade China (one of the treaty’s signatories) from continuing to violate it. But fighting “climate change” (known as global warming before recent cold weather) and the Law of the Sea are parts of the Democratic Party’s socio-political identity.

There may be things that Barack Obama is not good at, but he has proved to be very good at tailoring his words to his audiences.

Angelo M. Codevilla

Angelo M. Codevilla is professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University and is a Senior Fellow of The Claremont Institute. He served as a U.S. Senate Staff member dealing with oversight of the intelligence services. His new book Peace Among Ourselves and With All Nations was published by Hoover Institution Press.

About the Author

Comments

  1. libertarian jerry says

    Good points Dr. Codevilla. But in reality Mr.Obama’s main base is the Political Class. More precisely the mainly big city or urban government employees,retired government employees,special interests plus the millions of net tax consumers whose dependency is centered around voting for the same,usually Democratic Party liberal or progressive candidates,that bring the welfare checks,food stamps and other freebies home month after month,year after year, generation after generation. For Americans who really care for their nation and see it plundered by both the Republicans and Democrats it is not Mr.Obama that we have to worry about. The damage done by him, to our nation, can eventually be repaired.. The problem is the millions of people who would blindly vote to put such a man into office in the first place. This is what freedom loving people throughout the nation lose sleep over. That responsible,independent people are being consistently out voted by a constituency of net tax consumers who literally vote for a living and couldn’t make a living in the American free enterprise system if their lives depended on it keep putting people like Mr.Obama into positions of power. God help our country.

  2. R Richard Schweitzer says

    There is a disconnect between the management of the Federal Administrative State and the conduct of foreign relations as a function of the constitutionally delineated federal government.

    Attempts to bring foreign relations within the purview of the administration and direction of the Federal Administrative State, as something that can be “managed” in the same general format, brings into focus the crucial issue of the differences in the sources of authority for the Federal Administrative State and the constitutionally delineated federal government, respectively.

    The Federal Administrative State has derived its authority from the passive acceptance and implied consent, through representatives, of the polity – public opinion, in low-level information terms. Foreign relations are not merely an authority, they are a duty, of the constitutionally delineated government.

    In addition to visible incompetence in the management of the Federal Administrative State, we are witnessing disastrous attempts to extend that management over foreign relations as a mitigation of the constitutionally delineated duty.

  3. nobody.really says

    What little I learned from Writing 101 was let the audience know the viewpoint of the speaker. To better understand the weaknesses of Obama’s foreign policy, it would be helpful to know the right policy to pursue with respect to —

    1. the use of chemical weapons by others,
    2. the Syrian civil war,
    3. the situation in Ukraine,
    4. Iran’s nuclear program,
    5. the South China Sea,
    Etc.

    Once Codevilla provides us all with the benefit of Truth, it will be easier to understand the extent of “Obama’s failures.”

    • R Richard Schweitzer says

      ” Peace Among Ourselves and With All Nations”
      by Dr. Codavilla
      which is available on Kindle, will give something of a start, not to “truth”(he is not a pretending oracle) but rather toward avoiding disasters.

      Perhaps one line: “Shut the hell up !”
      Act, then if need be explain the reasons for the action.

      • gabe says

        Thank you Richard.

        Yes, ACT. This world is actually somewhat different than that conjured up by university professors in the safe recesses of their comfortable and intellectually compliant faculty lounges.

        double time, MAAAAARCHHHHHHH!

      • nobody.really says

        ” Peace Among Ourselves and With All Nations”
        by Dr. Codavilla
        which is available on Kindle, will give something of a start, not to “truth”(he is not a pretending oracle) but rather toward avoiding disasters.

        I have not had the pleasure of reading this tomb. Nor, given the current example of the author’s work, do I intend to. But if current company has read this book, please do tell us what he says on the five topics he discussed in this blog post, and which I list above.

        Let’s look at the first example: Obama’s red line on chemical weapons. On August 20, 2012, Chuck Todd asked the president about the threat of chemical weapons falling into the hands of terrorists within the context of the Syrian civil war. Obama gave a lengthy answer that included the following:

        I have, at this point, not ordered military engagement in the situation. But the point that you made about chemical and biological weapons is critical. That’s an issue that doesn’t just concern Syria; it concerns our close allies in the region, including Israel. It concerns us. We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people.

        We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.

        Since this time, Obama has achieved an inspection regime regarding Syrian chemical weapons while avoiding committing US troops. I find this the best alternative I could anticipate under the circumstances.

        What policy would Dr. Codavilla have preferred? Thus far, the spineless weasel has felt free to criticize, but hasn’t stated his own policy. Why not?

        I can understand arguments that the US has failed to act with sufficient aggression. I might be able to understand arguments that the US has acted too aggressively, if someone would offer one. But I have difficulty understanding a criticism that does not come with a preferred alternative. To take a stand and defend it injects some content into his criticism — while exposing his own analysis to at least a modicum of scrutiny. In the absence of a stand, it’s just mindless partisanship; just Codevilla spouting contentless platitudes to his audience.

        Perhaps one line: “Shut the hell up !”
        Act, then if need be explain the reasons for the action.

        Sound advice. If Dr. Codavilla’s going to say that the US is engaged in the wrong foreign policy, it would seem appropriate to, at a minimum, articulate a better foreign policy. If he can’t even do that, shutting up has some merit.

        • gabe says

          Ok, so let’s be clear about this.
          The inspection regime is not quite as successful as you would have us believe. In fact, since the Big O declared victory there have been several additional uses of chemical weapons and there are some agreed upon restrictions on our ability to monitor / seize the same. However, with respect top Syria, an even more significant issue is the matter of the Obamians arming the rebels (who just happen to be worse than the government. They are jihadists) One can argue who we should support, of course; but it is the dissembling nature of this administrations foreign policy that is at issue here. who should / could trust us. How can an adversary reasonably expect us to behave. More often in such circumstances the adversary overestimates our weakness / lack of will – and then all hell breaks out (see Neville Chamberlin and “Peace in our times”).

          Iran is another example of presenting a weak façade and then expecting that someone will be persuaded by the force of Obama’s words and “intellectual prowess.” Why has he essentially granted Iran the right to pursue nuclear weapons and at a time when it is clear that the Iranian imposed limits on inspection regimes is insufficient to accomplish the objective (ours not theirs).
          South china Sea – again weakness and not only an unwillingness to project both our power and our national interest in maintaining free movement in this critical sea lane but also doing everything to make it impossible to protect such interests by vastly reducing blue water capabilities.

          So shutting up may in fact be called for – but one would think that the Obamians would be doing the lip-sealing. oops, I forgot they are the masters of the faculty lounge and they never have to shut up there, do they!

          take care, as always
          gabe

  4. nobody.really says

    Gabe – seriously?

    The inspection regime is not quite as successful as you would have us believe.

    Citation, please. How successful would I have you believe the policy is?

    Here’s what I actually said: “I find this the best alternative I could anticipate under the circumstances.” What, specifically, do you disagree with?

    Here’s what I would have you believe: We have avoided sending US troops into Syria’s civil war. That’s my big goal, and thus far we’ve achieved it. As gravy, we also managed to extract some modest inspection of chemical weapons.

    In contrast, Gabe advocates that the administration does – what, exactly?

    [S]ince the Big O declared victory….

    Citation, please.

  5. nobody.really says

    [W]ith respect to Syria, an even more significant issue is the matter of the Obamians arming the rebels (who just happen to be worse than the government. They are jihadists) One can argue who we should support, of course; but it is the dissembling nature of this administration’s foreign policy that is at issue here. who should / could trust us. How can an adversary reasonably expect us to behave.

    Yes, one could argue about who we should support – but that would involve taking a position, espousing a policy that would have both costs and benefits. It’s so much more gratifying to simply bitch about not having achieved benefits.

    So, we don’t like the Syrian regime, and we don’t like the jihadists. And thus far Obama has managed to create a situation that punishes the Syrian regime – and the jihadists. It’s virtually a stalemate, much like the old Iraq/Iran stalemate of old. The virtue of stalemates between our enemies is that it keeps them too preoccupied to focus on bugging our friends (Israel , Iraq).

    Pretty? No. But what strategy do you prefer?

  6. nobody.really says

    More often in such circumstances the adversary overestimates our weakness / lack of will – and then all hell breaks out (see Neville Chamberlin and “Peace in our times”).

    So you embrace the Bush Doctrine? Let everyone know we’ll invade for any reason or invented reasons?

    No, of course not. That would be an actual position. You’re not advocating any position. You’re just bitching about the fact that Obama’s position has both costs and benefits, and you want a policy that has only benefits – not that you can actually name one.

    I’m so glad you raised the Chamberlin example. What, exactly, would you have had Chamberlin do in his meeting with Hitler? Chamberlin became Prime Minister in May 1937, whereupon he was served with this assessment from the military:

    Even today we could face without apprehension an emergency either in the Far East or the Mediterranean, provided that we were free…to concentrate sufficient strength in one or other of these areas…But the outstanding feature of the present situation is the increasing probability that a war started in any one of these three areas [the third being Western Europe] may extend to one or both of the other two…we cannot foresee the time when our defense forces will be strong enough to safeguard our territory, trade, and vital interests against Germany, Italy and Japan simultaneously. We cannot, therefore, exaggerate the importance, from the point of view of Imperial defense, of any political or international action that can be taken to reduce the numbers of our potential enemies or to gain the support of potential allies.

    Nevertheless, Chamberlin immediately expanded the military’s budget – especially the air forces’ – to the point that his government expended more than half of his budget on arms. English politicians disparaged Chamberlin for being a crazed war-monger.

    But the Great Depression had left England with empty coffers and a decimated productive capacity. Yet Chamberlin pressed on; he purchased the steel, instruments, aircraft, and machine tools from abroad, and converted England’s few factories to war production. This naturally further depleted England’s coffers, and reduced the goods it could produce for export. This threatened England’s balance of payments, depleted its reserves of gold and US currency, triggered inflation, and tanked England’s credit worthiness.

    Less than one year into Chamberlin’s administration, he was confronted with Hitler’s Anschluss. Chamberlin, having just written the checks to expand war production but having received none of the arms yet, arguably had time on his side.

    Is it really so obvious that the right thing to do would have been to reject Hitler and initiate WWII immediately? Suffice it to say, there were costs and benefits of either approach.

  7. nobody.really says

    Iran is another example of presenting a weak façade and then expecting that someone will be persuaded by the force of Obama’s words and “intellectual prowess.” Why has he essentially granted Iran the right to pursue nuclear weapons and at a time when it is clear that the Iranian imposed limits on inspection regimes is insufficient to accomplish the objective (ours not theirs).

    Great. And once again, the policy you prefer would be…?

    South China Sea – again weakness and not only an unwillingness to project both our power and our national interest in maintaining free movement in this critical sea lane but also doing everything to make it impossible to protect such interests by vastly reducing blue water capabilities.

    HEY – something that looks like an actual policy! So the US should maintain or increase its “blue water capabilities” and then – what? Just park aircraft carriers all over the South China Sea? You may recall that China has proven itself willing to crash into US vessels and take US citizens into custody. Do you advocate playing chicken with China over the South China Sea?

    Note that this might entail sacrificing any goodwill we have with China. China is 1.2 billion people with rising living standards. Is the South China Sea really worth provoking the loss of such a large trading partner, etc?

    Maybe so; maybe not. But at least we can now talk about actual costs and benefits of actual policy options – rather than vague bitching.

  8. nobody.really says

    So shutting up may in fact be called for – but one would think that the Obamians would be doing the lip-sealing.

    Good – let’s talk about that, too. Obama is president. Unlike Codevilla, many people believe that a president has a duty to take questions from the press from time to time, and to respond to them, as part of the democratic character of government. Do Gabe and Schweitzer seriously advocate that the president abandon this practice entirely and simply avoid speaking publicly?

    The nature of the complains I read here are that Obama 1) has failed to create heaven on earth, although the critics generally refrain from stating how exactly this ambition should be achieved, and 2) has failed to be sufficiently candid, as in saying “No, the US lacks sufficient interest in Syria to take up arms there, and yes, it will embolden the Syrian leadership to hear me say this, but hey, folks on Libertylawsite will bitch if I’m not sufficiently candid, and of course pleasing them should be my highest priority.”

    I agree that Obama has not created heaven on earth. However, I tend to think that he has made many sound trade-offs – the merits of which can only be appreciated when contrasted with other viable alternatives, which people here seem shamefully reluctant to espouse.

    I also agree that Obama is not candid – and I think this is often wise. Yet we have this tradition of the president subjecting himself to public questioning. Obama’s “red line” quote arose from precisely this circumstance.

    How to reconcile the need to avoid candor on many topics with the need to subject yourself to public questioning? To engage in a press conference necessarily entails the risk of saying something impolitic. But to refrain from engaging in press conferences seems to flout democratic tradition, to make the presidency seem more imperial than it already is. So how to draw the line? Don’t know. But I observe that, wherever you draw it, there will be both costs and benefits.

    • gabe says

      In a nutshell:

      Does anyone else find it exceedingly curious that a man who supports a pompous petulant whose ascendancy to the presidency was based upon nothing more substantive than HOPE AND CHANGE would deem it proper to criticize the good professor for being somewhat less than explicit.

      Nobody really believes that, now do they?

      take care
      gabe

    • nobody.really says

      Does anyone else find it exceedingly curious that a man who supports a pompous petulant whose ascendancy to the presidency was based upon nothing more substantive than HOPE AND CHANGE would deem it proper to criticize the good professor for being somewhat less than explicit.

      Oh, I quite agree that it’s entirely hypocritical for Obama to be so vague, and then to criticize Codevilla on that basis. Except that I’m not aware that Obama has ever done so.

      I’m hardly surprised that our ambassador to Syria would want to leave. The US has been engaging in a very cynical policy that results in harm to both the Syrian regime and the jihadists. The sole advantage in the policy is that it arguably advances the interests of the US and its allies. But that’s not much of a selling point for an ambassador to share with anyone he meets on the streets of Syria.

      The web page suggests that the US caused the Syrian civil war, and for that matter, the Libyan civil war — and therefore should bear responsibility for the consequences. Some commentor on this site has coined a term for this delusion that the US is responsible for all outcomes because the US is the cause of all outcomes. Suffice it to say, I don’t subscribe to this theory.

  9. libertarian jerry says

    After reading the above wandering diatribes of Mr.nobody.really I’ve come to the point where I have an enormous headache. I guess that’s what speaking gibberish does to people.

  10. R Richard Schweitzer says

    @ Nobody,

    Please, can you tell us how you are able to post quotations in italics. That’s a neat rick that seems beyond my ken.

  11. says

    R:
    The HTML for italics is: before the quoted text put a “” and after the text put a “”

    So it should look like this without the spaces:
    text you want to italicize

  12. says

    Okay that did not work out so well.
    It is explained here: http://www.w3schools.com/html/html_formatting.asp
    The tag is “less than sign”i”greater than sign” text you want to italicize “less than sign” /i”greater than sign”
    Where “greaterthan sign is the symbol on the top of the comma key and ” sign is the symbol on the top of the period key.greater than sign”

    • says

      The tag is “less than sign”i”greater than sign” text you want to italicize “less than sign” /i”greater than sign”
      Where “less than sign” is the symbol on the top of the comma key and ”greater than sign” is the symbol on the top of the period key.

  13. nobody.really says

    [C]an you tell us how you are able to post quotations in italics?

    Pretty cool, huh? Don’t I look smart?

    Alas, if only I were smart enough to be able to explain it. It’s a pain to describe HTML codes on a web page because when you type out an example, the web page won’t display the code you type; it only displays the text as formatted by the code you type.

    Try consulting this web page here. The format you asked about uses the BLOCKQUOTE code (“blockquote”). I sometimes also use the ITALICS (“I”) and BOLD (“b”) codes.

    Otherwise, the codes work the way z9z99 describes — but they’re devilishly hard to explain: To signal a change in format or font, you start with the “less than” symbol, followed immediately by the format (say, “blockquote”) followed immediately by the “greater than” symbol. Then you type the text you want to appear in the format you selected. To signal the end of the format change, you type “less than” followed immediately by the slash (“/”) followed immediately by the format you were using (in this case, “blockquote”) followed immediately by the “greater than” sign.

    Hope that helps. Hyperlinks (“links”) are even cooler, but I won’t even attempt to describe how to do them here. Good luck!

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