Obama at West Point: Transforming Militarism?

President Obama speaks to West Point graduates. (U.S. White House photo)

President Obama speaks to West Point graduates. (U.S. White House photo)

What should we make of President Obama’s West Point commencement speech?  Was it just a reiteration of war culture?  Or did it also contain a seed of change in U.S. foreign policy away from militarism?

When the president spoke to the Corps of Cadets four and a half years ago, on December 1, 2009, he announced a new war-fighting strategy and a surge of troops in Afghanistan but insinuated a peace-building attitude.  His purpose then was ambiguous.  It remained ambiguous on graduation day, May 28, 2014.

It is tempting to dismiss Obama’s professed commitment to peace as mere posturing, for the signs of war culture are manifest throughout his speech.

  • Which country is the embodiment of strength and virtue?

“The United States is and remains the one indispensible nation.”

“Our military has no peer . . . Our economy remains the most dynamic on Earth . . . The values of our founding inspire leaders in parliaments and new movements in public squares around the globe.”

“I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being.”

“Here’s my bottom line:  America must always lead on the world stage.  If we don’t, no one else will.”

  • Who is the enemy of peace and freedom and the primary threat to national security?

“For the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America, at home and abroad, remains terrorism.”

“A new century has brought no end to tyranny.”

  • How will the U.S. exercise leadership to meet this threat?

“The military . . . is, and always will be, the backbone of that leadership.”

“The United States will 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.”

“. . . global leadership requires us to see the world as it is, with all its danger and uncertainty.”

Yet, it is also possible that the president envisions a transformation in the war state, which could make it less belligerent.  What kind of transformation?  Securing peace and freedom does not always entail a military solution, he observes.  It requires raising the threshold of military action, partnering with other nations, and seeking a gradual evolution in international institutions to advance democracy, protect human rights, and extend prosperity around the globe.  This is the kind of leadership that “shrinks the space for terrorism and conflict.”  It is what the president describes as his “vision” for the years to come.

The question is whether the speech is an empty gesture to peace that rationalizes the continuation of a war state or a realistic adaptation to the political culture in which any case for peacemaking must be firmly grounded.  Is it a discourse of policy transition and cultural change or merely a self-sustaining ritual of the war state?

Either way, the speech reveals a rhetorical boundary beyond which the president did not venture.  Nowhere is the image of national innocence critically engaged.  Exceptionalism is the American mantra.  Evil is conveniently externalized and projected outward.

To play a constructive role in world affairs, the U.S. must come to recognize that the caricature of the terrorist is a mask of America’s own unexamined anxieties—that terrorism is a more complex and entangled phenomenon than we care, or so far dare, to acknowledge.

Perhaps there is no better way to confront the anxieties endemic to America’s inflated self-image than by reexamining our understanding of democracy, which is a source of perceived vulnerability instead of a paradigm for engaging difference and diversity constructively.  A richer understanding is presently obscured by the war state’s cant of democracy promotion.



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