U.S. President Barack Obama’s commencement speech at the United States Military Academy at West Point was an address that poetically decried considering major United States foreign policy dilemmas with “narrow rationale;” yet, the president then proceeded to defend U.S. inaction in Syria with narrow rationale.
Before eventually mentioning Syria, President Obama attempted to underscore the degree to which the world views America as both a beacon of hope and as a pragmatic partner who will actually act on its behalf in times of need. He pointed to several different occasions as evidence of this, including the typhoon devastated Philippines, heartbroken Nigeria when several hundred schoolgirls were kidnapped by Boko Haram militants, and Ukrainian security forces when pro-Russian rebels occupied eastern Ukrainian buildings.
There was, breathtakingly, no mention of the Syrian conflict at that moment - a situation which has caused what the U.N. referred to “the worst humanitarian crisis” in two decades. There was no mention of the implied pleas for help by thousands of children killed during indiscriminate air strikes or a madman’s detonation of his own explosives-laden body. Absent was the figure of 2.8 million refugees and 6.5 million internally displaced people (IDPs) - whose existence remains perpetually threatened by barrel bombings and radical rebel suicide car detonations.
There was no mention of repeated pleas by Syrian opposition chief Ahmad al-Jarba, asking for American-supplied arms that could dare to threaten Assad’s own arsenal.
President Obama announced that, “tough talk often draws headlines, but war rarely conforms to slogans”Brooklyn Middleton
Perhaps this was a silent admission of his administration’s own failures regarding Syria. Regardless, it would seem, while touting America’s status as a leader to countries in time of need, it would be imperative to immediately counter those statements with at least acknowledgment that the country which has consistently sought America’s help the most in the recent term has ultimately been ignored.
Obama did, however, reiterate that he believed the U.S. should “help” Syrians “stand up against a dictator who bombs and starves his own people.“ But he failed to say what that would precisely entail. And in the same breath, President Obama reminded that he remains confident in his decision to not send troops to Syria. His administration may feel that is an accomplishment but requests for help were hardly loud cries from the Syrian opposition demanding U.S. troop deployment. In fact, only a few weeks ago, Jarba reiterated this point, telling President Obama he did not want America “to send their sons to Syria” and that the opposition sought only “effective and efficient weapons.”
From a security standpoint, as al-Qaeda militants continue to flock to Syria and as Hezbollah continues setting up camp, the assertion that the former would not perhaps eventually be necessary - by President Obama’s own reasoning - cannot be ruled out.
And when he speaks of counterterrorism strategies targeting “countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold,” one cannot help but assert that the country with the second highest number of Islamist foreign fighters in modern history would seem like a solid place to kick off these efforts.
Ultimately, President Obama implores critics of his foreign policy to avoid thinking only in black and white and yet he himself relies on such thinking by blaming criticism over inaction in Syria on those who “think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak.” This tired talking point is intended to paint those who’ve long called for the U.S. to play a greater role in the Syrian conflict - predicated on the justification that it is both ethically and strategically imperative - as mere political adversaries.
Asking the American public to dig deeper on complex issues of foreign policy, President Obama then does nearly the antithesis of that when discussing Syria - this speech was the latest reminder of that.
Lastly, in what was perhaps a not so veiled reference to his infamous chemical weapons are a red line for U.S.-led intervention in Syria statement, President Obama announced that, “tough talk often draws headlines, but war rarely conforms to slogans.” This is true, to be sure. But the notion that tough talk followed up by continued inertia and an orchestrated chemical weapons deal (that does nothing to eradicate the chlorine gas which Assad’s regime continually uses) is in any way representative of a new era of a more evolved foreign policy is concerning.
Perhaps President Obama did not focus more of his speech on the Syrian conflict - while making points of when U.S. military pressure should become a reality - because it would have only further etched the failures of his administration in the minds of his political adversaries and supporters alike.
Brooklyn Middleton is an American Political and Security Risk Analyst reporting from Israel. Her work has appeared in Turkish and Israeli publications including The Times of Israel and Hürriyet Daily News. She has previously written about U.S. President Obama's policy in Syria as well as the emerging geopolitical threats Israel faces as it pursues its energy interests in the Eastern Mediterranean. She is currently researching Ayatollah Khomeini’s influence on Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant groups to complete her MA in Middle Eastern Studies. You can follow her on Twitter here: @BklynMiddleton.