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Obama’s West Point Speech: What Did He Say?

President Obama delivered the commencement address at West Point today. If you believe the New York Times, Obama laid out a new military and diplomatic strategy and repudiated the policies of the Bush administration:

President Obama outlined a new national security strategy rooted in diplomatic engagement and international alliances on Saturday as he repudiated his predecessor’s emphasis on unilateral American power and the right to wage pre-emptive war.

A careful reader will note, however, that the portions of Obama’s speech quoted by the Times do not support the summary in the lead paragraph. In fact, the Times’s account of the speech is entirely imaginary. Obama never mentioned either President Bush’s alleged “emphasis on unilateral American power” or “the right to wage pre-emptive war.” On the contrary, Obama’s speech consistently emphasized the continuity of American foreign policy. Here is a fuller excerpt than the sentences quoted by the Times:

The burdens of this century cannot fall on our soldiers alone. It also cannot fall on American shoulders alone. Our adversaries would like to see America sap its strength by overextending our power. And in the past, we’ve always had the foresight to avoid acting alone. We were part of the most powerful wartime coalition in human history through World War II. We stitched together a community of free nations and institutions to endure and ultimately prevail during a Cold War.
Yes, we are clear-eyed about the shortfalls of our international system. But America has not succeeded by stepping out of the currents of cooperation — we have succeeded by steering those currents in the direction of liberty and justice, so nations thrive by meeting their responsibilities and face consequences when they don’t.
So we have to shape an international order that can meet the challenges of our generation. We will be steadfast in strengthening those old alliances that have served us so well, including those who will serve by your side in Afghanistan and around the globe. As influence extends to more countries and capitals, we also have to build new partnerships, and shape stronger international standards and institutions.

Note Obama’s observation that “in the past, we’ve always had the foresight to avoid acting alone.” Always, as in Afghanistan and Iraq. With respect to Iraq, too, Obama emphasized continuity:

For many years, our focus was on Iraq. And year after year, our troops faced a set of challenges there that were as daunting as they were complex. A lesser Army might have seen its spirit broken. But the American military is more resilient than that. Our troops adapted, they persisted, they partnered with coalition and Iraqi counterparts, and through their competence and creativity and courage, we are poised to end our combat mission in Iraq this summer.
Even as we transition to an Iraqi lead and bring our troops home, our commitment to the Iraqi people endures. We will continue to advise and assist Iraqi security forces, who are already responsible for security in most of the country. And a strong American civilian presence will help Iraqis forge political and economic progress. This will not be a simple task, but this is what success looks like: an Iraq that provides no haven to terrorists; a democratic Iraq that is sovereign and stable and self-reliant.

In fact, Obama’s speech was a good one. It was appropriate to the occasion, not least because of its focus on continuity of policy. The Times’s account of the speech reflected the obsessions of the reporter and his newspaper, not the reality of what Obama said.

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