Two Speeches, Two Strategies

Eight years ago, on June 1, 2002, I sat in the bleachers at West Point's Michie Stadium as an active duty Major General and Chief of Infantry. I was there to see my youngest son graduate from the nation's oldest military academy and become an infantry lieutenant. President George W. Bush was the commencement speaker. He told the audience, including me, my wife and our future daughter-in-law, that our son was headed to Iraq. Not in so many words, but the speech confirmed the policy underpinnings of that future war.

Last Saturday, I watched President Obama deliver a very different message to the West Point graduating class of 2010 from my perch on Fox Island, Washington.

Every graduate of our war colleges understands the elements of national power. On arrival, the first lecture essentially starts with, "Welcome, practitioners of the military art. You all have demonstrated competent war fighting skills. This year we will round out your education by bringing in the other elements of national power, economic, diplomatic and political." Some would add information operations. All our colonels and generals understand that the prosecution of America's foreign policy must involve the application of the full spectrum of American power--economic, diplomatic, and yes, military.

The policy makers of the Bush administration apparently never attended the lecture that America's military leadership has etched in memory. With a go-it-alone swagger, they alienated longtime allies and turned the entirety of America's foreign policy over to the Secretary of Defense. Bush Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld quickly became the first among equals in the President's cabinet and set out to execute what President Bush stated at his West Point speech, "We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans and confront the worst threats before they emerge. In the world we have entered, the only path to safety is the path of action. And this nation will act." In other words, preventive war and unilateral action--all with a Secretary of Defense who refused to consider the other components of national power in the prosecution of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, much less in the rest of the U.S. foreign policy portfolio.

By contrast, with the unveiling of his National Security Strategy at West Point, President Obama illustrated a very different approach to national security, laying out five pillars: security, prosperity, values, international order and the integration of all elements of national power. The President confirmed that the military is the "cornerstone of our national defense," but emphasized that, "The burdens of this century cannot fall on our soldiers alone. It also cannot fall on American shoulders alone."

The cadets who graduated in 2002 were told that they were being taken down the path of pre-emptive war, alone. The cadets of the class of 2010 got the war college lecture from their Commander in Chief: All elements of national power will be integrated into U.S. foreign policy, in a spirit of engagement with our allies.