Streetwise Professor

May 29, 2014

Obama Gives a Speech, Meaning That No Straw Man is Safe

Filed under: China,History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 5:07 am

Reading about Obama’s commencement speech at West Point took me back years, to 1978 when Jimmy Carter spoke at the USNA graduation.

Not that I remember anything that Carter droned on about. Not a word. And that’s part of the reason Obama’s speech brought me back to Annapolis, 36 years ago: I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the case of those in attendance at USMA yesterday.

Some things have stuck in my mind. Like my classmates getting booted from their room at 0600 by a man wearing sunglasses and carrying a long black case who proceeded to lock himself in: their room overlooked the field where Marine 1 was going to land. I remember the march over to Memorial Stadium. I remember my classmates and I heckling Sam Donaldson before he did a standup in advance of Carter’s speech.

But as for what Carter said, in one ear and out the other, if it made it in the one ear at all. And the assembled WooPoos (sorry-as an ex-Squid I couldn’t resist) will probably have similar non-memories of Obama’s banal, vacuous, and totally predictable foreign policy speech.

I knew what he was going to say and how he was going to say it before he said it because the man is utterly incapable of originality, and stubbornly clings to both his rigid and narrow perspective on policy (a view apparently invulnerable to the reality of repeated failures) and his mental and rhetorical tics. I knew that he would justify his own positions by reference to those of his opponents, and do so by outrageously mischaracterizing them. For the most notable of his tics are the false choice and the mass murder of straw men. And I was not disappointed. In these expectations, anyways.

Obama portrayed himself as the realist and the peacemaker, and his opponents as troglodyte warmongers who advocate a military solution to every foreign policy challenge. He said that because the US has the world’s premier military hammer, his political foes see every problem as a nail to be driven by it. Yes. He said every.

He was at his most outrageous in his discussion of Syria, where he peevishly and pridefully congratulated himself for his calm wisdom in not committing US ground troops to the country. Which absolutely no one was calling for in the first place, or ever. Well, maybe the chief oped writer and head of classified advertising for the Back of Buggery Bugle was shouting Geronimo and calling for the deployment of the 82d Airborne, but no major politician or policy figure, or A, B, C, or even D-list conservative opinion leader was advocating any such thing.

In point of fact, in Syria Republicans and even people in his own administration presented a variety of different policy alternatives, including arming the rebels to airstrikes. None advocated insertion of ground forces, and indeed almost all who even mentioned it did so only to disclaim that intent. Pretty much the entire security establishment in his own administration pressed for arming the rebels, but Obama demurred. Obama and Kerry themselves threatened air strikes before backing down.

And here we are, years after the war began, and the carnage and misery drags on day after day. But Obama is giving himself bursitis patting himself on the back for a job well done in fending off those baying for battle in Damascus.

200,000 dead Syrians could not be reached for comment.

Insofar as Ukraine is concerned, Obama said it brought back memories of Soviet tanks rolling into eastern Europe after WWII. I said to myself: yeah, we didn’t do anything about it then, and we sure ain’t going to do anything about it now. Obama has gone full auto-Yalta.

And again, no one except the chemtrail set and Russian propaganda shills (there is a large overlap between the two) even suggest the possibility of US military action. Many advocate far more robust financial measures against Russia, but (a) Obama has shied away from those despite Russia’s attempt to disrupt the election (which Obama said was a trigger for more sanctions, but what’s another red line anyways?), and (b) Obama pretends as if his critics never mention measures short of war to confront Putin.

There was stiff competition, but these were the dumbest bits:

“We can’t call on others to make commitments to combat climate change if so many of our political leaders deny that it is taking place,” Obama said. “It’s a lot harder to call on China to resolve its maritime disputes under the Law of the Sea Convention when the United States Senate has refused to ratify it. – despite the repeated insistence of our top military leaders that the treaty advances our national security. That’s not leadership; that’s retreat.”

Translation: How can I ram idiotic policies down your throats if some uppity people insist on pointing out that they’re idiotic? The LOST part is particularly outrageous. What China is doing violates maritime rights and laws and obligations that far pre-date LOST. Moreover, even putting the legalisms aside, China is engaged in aggressive acts that greatly raise the risk of serious confrontation or even conflict.

Obama did throw in a few stock lines. If the US doesn’t lead, who will. I believe in American exceptionalism to the last fiber of my being. Cheerleader media outlets, notably Bloomberg, dutifully led with this boob bait in their headlines. But every substantive part of the speech contradicted those assertions.


This was billed as a major foreign policy speech and a ringing defense of his policies. The scary thing is that Obama and his minions probably believe that. But given the tiresome predictability of the speech, you have to wonder what they are thinking. Any slightly self-aware speechwriters, not to mention a slightly self-aware president reading what’s going on the teleprompter, should have realized that critics would be ready to pounce on the resort to Obama’s standard rhetorical tricks, and that this would greatly diminish the impact of the speech. And diminish it has. The impact is pretty much zero, from what I can tell from reading a rather wide range of sources.

Reading through the transcript, it struck me that Talleyrand’s characterization of the Bourbons fits Obama well too. He has learned nothing, and he has forgotten nothing. In his mind, despite the wreckage of policies in the Middle East, Asia, and Russia/FSU strewn all around him, it’s still Berlin 2008 or Cairo 2009. He rationalizes the criticism by mischaracterizing the critics and their arguments, in a profoundly unfair way.

With a never forgetting, never learning Bourbon in charge, we are condemned to 2.5 more years of foreign policy fiascos. Get used to it, if you haven’t already.


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  1. I love the fact that the imbecile Sean-Hannity-with-a-dictionary who entertains us with this blog makes fun of the chemtrail crowd and regularly rants about how global warming is a secret conspiracy by scientists because Al Gore uses an airplane.

    Comment by keepupthegoodwork — May 29, 2014 @ 8:56 am

  2. @keepupthegoodwork. I rescued your comment from the spam queue because such imbecility should be shared with the world.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — May 29, 2014 @ 9:26 am

  3. Keepup – whatever – has real entertainment value, putting the non into non sequitur, the ad next to hominem and not a word about the principal in your post. One couldn’t come up with something stupider in fewer words if one sat on both hands for a fortnight (dadaism excluded).

    Thanks, Perfesser!

    Comment by Sotos — May 29, 2014 @ 9:48 am

  4. Even the WaPo is now calling the President out for the use of straw-men as a rhetorical device.

    Comment by Blackshoe — May 29, 2014 @ 3:53 pm

  5. Yes, agreed.

    From the minute that Obama was re-elected Russia and China have switched on the afterburners and have begun pushing out for all they are worth, safe in the knowledge that the people in the White House don’t know what they are doing and are unlikely to react.

    One minute after that, the Japanese, Germans etc. saw what was happening and began making contingency plans: the Germans to ‘snuggle up’ to the Russian Bear, the Japanese to start loading up on Panda-seeking armaments.

    Would love to see you write an entry on China, Professor. It may not be your area, but from my vantage point in the South Pacific the Chinese appear determined to take what they want to take and not tolerate any opposition. Which will make things uncomfortable for my rather exposed, resource-rich, sparsely-populated land mass.

    PS: I left my post at the national financial markets and companies regulator last month, hence the ‘ex-regulator’ tag 😉

    Comment by Ex-regulator on lunch break — May 30, 2014 @ 12:41 am

  6. @ex-reg. I may take you up on the China post. I’ve written in the past about their economy, but I have discussed their military/naval posture in some presentations I’ve made. Maybe I’ll write that up. My take was/is that they are going all Mahan. Wilhelm II was also a big fan of Mahan. You can see the parallels.

    This is disturbing mainly because I know Obama et al have no idea of who Mahan was and the implications of a Mahanian viewpoint. Hence they are unprepared and uncomprehending, and will make grave mistakes about Chinese intentions and misinterpret their actions.

    Let me give some thought to how to write this up. Watch this space!

    Re the “ex” tag. Come over to the light!

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — May 30, 2014 @ 6:40 am

  7. @sotos

    At most one more post impugning the honor of carnies on SWP.

    Comment by pahoben — May 30, 2014 @ 4:23 pm

  8. Thankyou Professor, I would appreciate that post.

    Those ‘Mahan’ parallels are not reassuring. The Chinese certainly have decided ‘now is the time’ and have decided to replace ‘smile diplomacy’ (ha!) with outright oceanic bullying and provocation.

    The Japanese are under no illusions, their response is in accordance with their national character, from what I’ve seen of it.

    It may be related to their economic problems. All indications are that the Chinese housing/property market is looking v. ill, with consequences for employment, government revenue and possibly social stability, to which they are terribly sensitive (for example, the secret police annually send four officers to accompany an elderly widow to her son’s grave – she commemorates his death each year around June 4, this year being the 25th anniversary – grannies as a threat to ChiCom rule and social stability!)

    Seeking to distract the multitudes with an aggressive foreign policy and palaver such as ‘we’re different!’ and ‘they’re trying to surround us!’ was also a Wilhelmine policy, from memory.

    Re. regulation: yes, after a few years of banging my head against various brick walls and not having much impact with my risk assessments, I thought ‘what good is this doing anyone??’; so there’s another economist on the job queue! (hopefully not for long).

    Comment by Ex-regulator on lunch break — May 30, 2014 @ 11:10 pm

  9. @Ex-I have long been a China skeptic/bear. The banking system is hiding so much garbage, shoveling a lot of it into a run-prone shadow banking system. They are keeping things aloft with a huge credit bubble and despite all the talk about transitioning to a different “growth model”, whenever the reported GDP growth dips below 7.5 percent they go back to the bad old ways. There is a huge element of central control and overriding market forces through brute force intervention (primarily through the financial system) and such things inevitably fail.

    Meaning that you are quite right that the pugnacious foreign policy is meant to be a distraction. They do their best to hide their economic fears, but those fears, are like a dark star whose existence can be inferred from its gravitational pull.

    Good luck on the job search. Not to be too cynical about it, but the metastasizing financial regulatory system creates a job market in institutions that have to deal with the cancer. Your experience inside should land you someplace good outside soon.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — May 31, 2014 @ 12:16 am

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