President Obama used a teleprompter for his West Point commencement address, which means that he took the occasion seriously. What he said, however dull and clichéd, represents not just the sometimes-flighty emanations from his remarkable brain, but also United States policy at large.
Obama's West Point speech was bland, but it is doubtful that the president was simply being lazy. Rather, given the solemn setting of a graduating class of Second Lieutenants setting off for war, presumably Obama was in his most serious mode.
The speech, marked by Obama's frequent slouching into the passive voice, may reflect the fact that the president had little intellectual or emotional sympathy for the ranks of cadets in front of him. Still, his words, however prosaic, matter.
Right off, by way of a lame joke about cadets on restriction, Obama claims "absolute power" as commander-in-chief to "absolve" them, managing in a single phrase to mangle the Constitution (nobody in this country has absolute power over anything) while also going into full messianic mode (who but God can truly absolve?).
For an address to a group of young warrior leaders, Obama focuses mainly on ideas of harmony and cooperation. Accordingly Obama tells them that "understanding of the cultures and traditions of the place where you serve" is just as important as "performance on the battlefield." Nor does Obama call for victory. Rather, in Afghanistan, "with our Afghan and international partners[,] we will succeed." It sounds like he is calling on the cadets to establish a new international foundation, or to fund his presidential library.
He praises the cadets' "international experience" at foreign academies and the "new friendships" forged with visiting cadets. That's all well and good, but in a nearly four-thousand word speech, Obama only once uses the word enemy, and that in the context of the "common enemies" of the American and Afghan peoples. Instead in discussing attacks on the homeland, Obama refers to "violent extremists" from a "distant place." Where? The stars?
Obama spends plenty of time and energy extolling the "diversity of race and ethnicity" within the Corps, from the fact that the top two graduates are women to "all the great religions" represented by the cadets. Fine again, but this is the only part of the speech that is really direct and at all sings -- it is the only point where Obama appears invested. And of course, along the same lines, Obama could not omit a comment rejecting "al Qaeda's gross distortion of Islam[.]"
Of course, there was plenty of pie-in-the-sky new ageism, as in the pursuit of "clean energy" and "research that unlocks wonders" to solve all our problems. Perhaps this rings true with some cadets or their parents. A shame Obama can't just wave his wand and make it happen -- though he often acts like he just might.
More importantly, the speech embodies Obama's core discounting of American exceptionalism in favor of policies that "build new partnerships and shape stronger international standards and institutions." This is predictable from Obama, but asserting it at West Point reinforces the depth of the president's internationalist disposition.
The speech also reeks of the president's insulated moral blindness and hypocrisy. Obama implicitly rejects America's special place among nations, but he is not above wrapping himself in the mantle of historic American moral leadership, at least as he would like it to be. Thus, we have succeeded not by "stepping out of the current of cooperation, but by steering those in the direction of liberty and justice." This is arguably true of our nation's history, but not of Obama's presidency. When has Obama steered a course in the direction of international liberty? Rather, he has coddled the cruelest and most autocratic regimes and turned a deaf ear to those within them fighting for liberty and justice, all the while pressuring, insulting, and betraying our democratic allies.
But perhaps most disturbing of all is Obama's deceptively fine-sounding reference to "universal rights" at the end of the speech. After noting the "inalienable rights" asserted by our founding fathers and embodied in our foundational documents, Obama goes on to assert that these same rights are indeed "claimed by people of every race and religion in every region of the world."
Certainly there are individuals from Pyongyang to Beijing to Tehran who claim these rights, but that is not the point, and the statement is typical of Obama's obfuscation of reality. Obama flatly ignores these individuals while seeking to do business with governments that flatly reject the American creed. These governments control hundreds of millions of people for whom universal rights are meaningless formulation, whether because they cannot obtain them, are unaware of the concept, or are just not interested.
And why not interested? Because, heaven forbid, their political philosophy or religion (or both) just do not accommodate Western concepts of universal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These nations represent our rivals at best, our enemies at worst. One of them, as Obama effectively sits idle, is near to acquiring nuclear weapons with which to attack our democratic allies, and ultimately us, while others are already so armed. But you would never know that from Obama's West Point speech. Nor would the graduating cadets and their parents know from his words that someday we might well have to fight them. And that is why the speech, teleprompter and all, is important.