Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
President Obama’s speech to the West Point graduates on Wednesday revealed a less adventurous military policy than Bush-Cheney’s. But he still endorsed unilateral action, he bowed before the dangerous doctrine of American exceptionalism, and he hinted at the possibility of major power confrontations to come.
Taking an only slightly veiled stab at his predecessor, Obama said, “Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint, but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences, without building international support and legitimacy for action, without leveling with the American people about the sacrifices required.”
But then he admitted that he’d go to war unilaterally under certain circumstances: “when our people are threatened, when our livelihoods are at stake, when the security of our allies is in danger.” If the American people face a direct and imminent threat, then the United States has the right under international law to use force. But “when our livelihoods are at stake” is a lot murkier. If, for instance, there was a revolution in Saudi Arabia affecting the price of oil, a President could say our livelihoods are at stake, but it would not be legitimate under international law. Nor would going to war to defend a threat against “the security of our allies.”
He minimized the threat of a major power conflict at one point, only to allude to that possibility later on in his speech. “The odds of a direct threat against us by any nation are low and do not come close to the dangers we faced during the Cold War,” he said. But minutes later, he said: “Regional aggression that goes unchecked—whether in southern Ukraine or the South China Sea, or anywhere else in the world—will ultimately impact our allies and could draw in our military.” To suggest that the U.S. military might confront Moscow over the Ukraine or Beijing over the South China Sea is highly provocative and alarming.
Like Bush before him, Obama equated “democracy and market economies,” and he saluted “the World Bank and IMF” as “force multipliers.”
And he genuflected on the altar of American arrogance. “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being,” he said. He also repeated the haughty phrase that was popular both in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. Said Obama: “The United States is and remains the one indispensable nation.” He vowed that it would remain so for 100 years. “That has been true for the century passed, and it will be true for the century to come,” he said.
Such rhetoric only aggravates the American superiority complex, and in an increasingly multipolar world, it surely will be an affront to billions of people the world over.