President Obama marks career with words, words, words

Speeches became almost his only shield to fend off what looks at times as endless withering wave after wave of sharp arrows

Hisham Melhem
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President Obama’s political career is marked by seminal speeches. He is a compelling orator. His books and speeches show his affection for words and his linguistic gifts. He mastered the art of delivering speeches. He has the voice and the poise and he knows how and when to employ the pause for most effect, and he always get the right cadence. Obama introduced himself to America in his nationally televised speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, Massachusetts in 2004. For most of the next ten years audiences at home and abroad were mesmerized by Obama’s words, whether he was talking about strictly American themes, like his speech on race in Philadelphia in 2008, how to improve relations with the Muslim World, in his Cairo speech in 2009, the demands and challenges of war and peace when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in 2009, or his moving speeches following nihilistic violence, at memorial services for the victims of massacres in Tucson, Arizona and Newtown, Connecticut.

The elusive ‘Vision Thing’

However, in the last couple of years the master has begun to lose some of his magic. Speeches became almost his only shield to fend off what looks at times as endless withering wave after wave of sharp arrows from his admittedly merciless and at many times unfair Republican critics, to his growing legions of international detractors including disillusioned old supporters. Obama’s West Point commencement address of May 28 belongs to this latter category and will not be remembered as a seminal speech.


Speeches became almost his only shield to fend off what looks at times as endless withering wave after wave of sharp arrows

Hisham Melhem

The White House framed the speech as a new post-9/11 broad vision of foreign policy that is “both interventionist and internationalist, but not isolationist or unilateral”. It was clear that the address, was designed inter alia to rebut the harsh criticism of President Obama’s handling of the Syrian crisis, particularly his failure to deliver on his promises to punish the Syrian dictator Assad after he used chemical weapons against his people, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its continuing belligerence in the Ukraine and China’s flexing of its military muscles in its territorial disputes with Japan and the Philippines. The president was eager to show his supporters at home and his worried allies overseas that he is regaining the mantle of leadership. It was ironic that a president in his sixth year in office will be compelled, again, to explain in broad strokes the underpinnings of his foreign policy and how and when the lone superpower will exercise its right to use military might.

American leadership in a new world

There were many references to ‘American leadership’ in the speech for those who believe that Obama’s leadership is wanting. Obama went as far as telling his critics at home “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being”, something that he rarely says, or he used to qualify. The president told the cadets that the US is winding down its longest war in Afghanistan, after ending his second longest war in Iraq, as well as going beyond the war on al Qaeda core in the Afghan-Pakistan theatre after the successful hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Obama’s embrace of containment and his defense of non-military tools in dealing with crises were in stark contrast with George W. Bush’s aggressive speech at West Point 12 years earlier. Bush was then preparing the nation for war with Iraq, a country ruled by a dictator, Saddam Hussein; Bush believed he could not be deterred from secretly providing weapons of mass destruction to terrorist organizations.

President Obama presented a spirited defense of his belief that unless core US interests and interests of allies are not seriously threatened, international crises that impact the US should be dealt with by applying a combination of diplomatic and economic tools in collaboration with allies and friends. The address was another re-iteration of the President’s well known abhorrence of war and reluctance to use conventional military force, even in a limited way except in extreme cases. As Brian Katulis, a sharp and insightful interpreter of Obama’s presidency reminded us, one of the guiding themes of Obama’s foreign policy is the one he outlined during the 2008 campaign: “I don’t want to just end the war, but I want to end the mindset that got us into war in the first place.” Obama at West Point in 2014 was erasing Bush’s mind-set that was articulated at West Point circa 2002.

Narrow military doctrine

President Obama was emphatic in saying that military force should not be too prominent as a tool in the conduct of foreign policy. The U.S. will use its military might only in those cases “when our core interests demand it- when our people are threatened; when our livelihood is at stake; or when the security of our allies is in danger.” It seems that Obama’s threat to use limited military force (in the memorable John Kerry’s phrase ‘unbelievably small attack’) against Assad’s military would not be contemplated, since one could argue that it does not threaten the “core interests” of the United States. It would be illuminating to ask President Obama if his reluctant use of military force against the Libyan regime of Qaddafi in 2011 would fit neatly with this doctrine.

Obama believes that in the foreseeable future “the most direct threat to America at home and abroad remains terrorism.” Particularly from decentralized al Qaeda affiliates. Then the president said “we must shift our counter-terrorism strategy” and learn from the failures and successes of our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan “to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold”. Isn’t that one of the main missions in Afghanistan for the last 13 years? Didn’t we do that at a great cost in Iraq? Aren’t we doing the same thing in Yemen with limited success for more than a decade? The president announced a new Counter-Terrorism Partnerships Fund of up to $5 billion to train, build capacity and help partner countries fighting terrorism, such as training the Yemeni military against al Qaeda and helping military operations of European allies such as France in Mali.

Straw men

It was in this context that Obama approached the ongoing crisis in Syria. After repeating his old conviction that there is no military solution to the “terrible suffering” of Syria anytime soon, he blatantly added “As president, I made a decision that we should not put American troops into the middle of this increasingly sectarian civil war. And I believe that is the right decision”. Once again, the president was disingenuous, and once again he was engaging in a shameless campaign against straw men. None of his senior current or former advisors proposed dispatching US troops to Syria. At various times, his former CIA director David Petraeus and secretaries of State and defense Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta did recommend arming and training vetted moderate rebels, but the President repeatedly turned them down, because he did not want to get involved in “somebody else’s civil war”.

The address, coming after leaks from senior officials that Obama has decided to ramp up support for the moderate Syrian rebels including broadening training by putting the limited CIA training program in Jordan under the supervision of the Department of Defense DOD, which would signal a serious shift given the resources and capabilities of DOD, the promises of the President were ambiguous, tentative and vague. Obama said that in “helping those who fight for the right of all Syrians to choose their own future, we also push back against the growing number of extremists who find safe-haven in the chaos”. The president seemed to be trying to delay any concrete decisions by entering into open ended discussions with congressional leaders when he said. “I will work with congress to ramp up support for those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists and a brutal dictator.”

The president was discussing the war in Syria as if it has been raging for three months only and not for more than three years. There was no hint or acknowledgement, that the administration’s dithering, its refusal to help the moderate rebels before the regime began igniting the fires of sectarianism, has helped create the toxic environment that was ideal for the spread of sectarian violence, and the entry of the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the al Nusra Front and other radical Islamists to Syria to do battle against the extremist Alawite militias, the professional killers of the regime and its extreme Shiite allies from Lebanon, principally Hezbollah and Iraq.

‘We are not going alone’

What the president alluded to, was said an hour later by a senior administration official who spoke on background with reporters. “So this is a conversation that we want to have with congress as they develop their approaches, as we develop ideas for how to increase resources that can flow to the Syrian opposition”. The official made it clear that these discussions with congress will take place “in the coming weeks and months”. It is shocking, to think that after more than 160,000 thousand Syrians killed, three million refugees and more than 6 million displaced, and after extensive discussions and contingency planning by DOD and other US agencies, and contacts with the Syrian opposition and the ‘friends of Syria’, the president of the United States needs few months of talks with congressional leaders to figure out how to help the Syrian rebels. The president seemed to be condemning Syrians to another hot summer of slow, steady dying.

In a subsequent interview with National Public Radio, the president stressed again that with conflicts like the one in Syria, if the situation require a judicious use of military force, it has to be in cooperation with other countries; “we are not going alone”. Sources familiar with the internal deliberations told Al-Arabiya Eng. Web that a decision was made by the president to ramp up support for the Syrian rebels, but the nature and extent of this support is not determined yet, and that putting DOD in charge of training and arming has not been finalized yet. The sources added “there will be progress, but it will be measured in centimeters, not in meters. Don’t get your hopes too high”.

Words, words, words

A president, however eloquent does not live by words alone. President Obama’s sometime impressive use of speeches and the power of words to heal, explain, inspire, cajole and admonish makes him look like a man who believes that eloquent words could have the impact of actions. That giving a powerfully articulate speech, by framing complex issues rationally, one could accomplish most of one’s mission. In Cairo, President Obama, was erudite in framing the complexities of America’s relations with the equally complex Muslim World. Afterwards, when there were no serious follow up, it looked as if the speech itself was the objective and not the work that should follow. And this is not the exception.

The ancient Greeks developed the concept of Praxis, a process by which intellectual, philosophical constructs can be acted upon. Praxis, evolved in Western Philosophy from Aristotle to Karl Marx and on to the last century also as action, or the ‘practice’ part of the dichotomy of ‘theory and practice’. Theory and Praxis or action is an integral part of politics as in many other human endeavors. Man cannot live fully by one component without the other. The built-in tension in man between the active life and the contemplative life (theory and praxis), is at the core of some of the outstanding novels in modern times. This tension is at the heart of Hermann Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund, and Nikos Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek. Mr. President this brief history of Praxis, is to remind you that presidents cannot live by eloquent words alone, or attractive pronouncements and promises delivered in speeches, or by being cerebral and contemplative while avoiding the rough and tumble and the challenge of Praxis.


Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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