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Terms and definitions

May 29, 2014 - By Steven R. Peck

What does 'foreign policy' mean? The president wants us all to think about it

The president of the United States made a speech Wednesday and invited Americans to contemplate the foreign policy of our nation.

One specific question posed by Barack Obama is whether "foreign policy" means, more or less, the use of American military force, or whether there is some other, larger meaning.

Those, at least, are the terms under which the president framed the debate. He has been under continuous onslaught from his opponents in Congress, who say unanimously that the president is "weak" on foreign policy.

Speaking at the commencement ceremony at the United States Military Academy at West Point, the president, who is the military commander in chief, asked aloud whether military force is the only legitimate expression of American foreign policy that could not be called "weak."

Stung by allegations of said weakness, the president astonished no one by arguing that other demonstrations of foreign policy can be both effective and "strong."

Ongoing pains in the foreign policy neck in Syria, Iran, Afghanistan and now Ukraine and perhaps even Nigeria, all clamor for an American military solution in the opinion of Obama's sworn enemies in Washington.

Some of them use the past decade of military experience in Iraq and Afghanistan as supportive points in their argument favoring more widespread use of the American military around the world.

Certainly Obama's critics have a legitimate point to make in calling for the deployment of U.S. armed forces in conflicts around the world. But just as certain is the tenuous nature of claims that the Iraq and Afghan wars have been American success stories. That point is highly debatable now and is likely to remain so for decades to come, our well-kindled support for American troops notwithstanding.

The takeaway line from the president's speech at West Point surely will be this: "Being the best hammer doesn't mean every problem is a nail."

The president took some risk in delivering a speech with that message to graduates of the United States Military Academy, where the reception apparently was not particularly warm. But it served its purpose by getting attention. And attention is what is needed, both for the speech and for the question.

The record shows that Obama has been perfectly willing to use military force in some high-profile situations that proved successful in terms of mission. Ask Osama bin Laden or Moammar Ghadafi. U.S. foreign policy probably seemed plenty strong in the final hours of their lives.

But individual missions are not the same as encompassing, well-formed policy. The president -- and his critics -- are asking all of us to think about that.

Some parts of national foreign policy are dull and distant. Others reach us close to home. In the past 20 years, hundreds of Fremont County families have been involved directly -- sometimes tragically -- with the exercise of foreign policy in the military sphere.

This is everyone's business, which is why the president is asking us to think and talk about it. Considering what's at stake, there could hardly be a more important conversation.

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