WASHINGTON - Barack Obama is in the midst of his Reassure Our Allies World Tour. First, there was his Asia junket during which he tried to simultaneously lower expectations for America's foreign policy performance and promise allies we were still ready to lead. Then, a surprise visit to Afghanistan. This week, he'll be in Europe on the beaches of Normandy, standing beside Vladimir Putin. The big stadium show of the tour took place last Wednesday, however, right here in the United States at West Point. Returning to the site of his famous "Hello, I Must Be Going" Afghanistan speech in 2009 - when he broke new ground in foreign policy schizophrenia by announcing both our escalation and our withdrawal from that benighted country in the same set of remarks - last week, the president sought to present his foreign policy vision in what the White House billed as a major address.
To borrow from the baseball metaphor the president offered up on his Asia trip when he spoke of a foreign policy made up of singles and doubles rather than home runs, this speech was a dribbler into the glove of the first baseman. It provided neither reassurance to allies nor anything remotely like a foreign policy vision. It listed some problems, outlined some principles, but did not lay out any real goals or even a hint of what America's objectives in the world should be going forward.
The only real news in the speech was the announcement of a proposed $5 billion "partners" fund for combating terror. It's a pretty good idea; we can't fight terror alone. The problem is that one of the reasons terrorists are drawn to countries is because the local governments are ineffective, tolerant of them or worse, and actively support the bad guys. From Pakistan to Yemen to Libya, we have found that the people we need to trust weren't always trustworthy or capable of helping. Further contributing to the sense that there may be less to the fund idea than meets the eye is the fact that, of course, getting anything passed as proposed by Congress is a long shot. All this makes the one biggish initiative in the speech both less than it seemed and a metaphor for the defects of the speech as a whole.
If you wanted to sum up the speech you might say that the president wants to find a new low-cost, low-risk path to American leadership - a Wal-Mart foreign policy. He wants to lead. He asserted our exceptionalism. He asserted our indispensability. But the vast majority of the speech was a reiteration of the reasons he has already offered up for not taking action or not taking much action or not taking effective action in the past. These included the "no good choices" cliché, the false choice between boots on the ground and inaction cliché, the false choice between unilateralist overreach and multilateralist inertness cliché, and so on. These were couched, as usual, in earnest language that shows he knows where the problems in the world are along with his traditional touting of foreign policy "successes" that don't hold up to much scrutiny - from Iraq to Afghanistan, Libya to Ukraine.
Most of the speech was an explanation of what has become his signature foreign-policy approach: minimalism - doing as little as possible while still creating the illusion of action. Take the hidden and disturbing center of the speech. The president both took credit for striking "huge" blows against core al-Qaida (remember that the estimate of this core at the time of 9/11 was 100 people) and then said, in virtually the same breath, that the greatest threat to the U.S. remains terrorism - but a new form of terrorism embodied by al-Qaida franchises spreading from Africa across the Middle East and into South Asia. He didn't directly address that there are now more terrorists controlling more territory than ever before, that the State Department's most recent report on terror casualties shows a sharp rise, that his own intelligence chiefs warn that the threat of terror is greater than ever, or that in fact, by any reasonable measure, we are actually losing the war on terror.
In the end, the speech had three primary flaws. First, it utterly failed to achieve its goal of reversing the narrative that this is a president - and a country - that is unlikely to lead as we have in the past or as the world demands.
Second, it did not offer a real vision of America's role in the world - one with clear, real goals. President Obama could have spoken of remaking and revitalizing the multilateral system so it is up to the challenges of the new century. He could have described a new commitment to remaking key transatlantic alliances so that they are up to meeting the new threats we face. He could have sketched out a vision for America's role in the Pacific. He could have spoken of how we would go about developing new doctrines to deal with a new era of cyber- and high-tech warfare. He could have launched a program to help restock our government with people with expertise in the regions and technologies we will need to lead.
Third, he did not address in a meaningful way perhaps the greatest weak spot in his foreign policy. He has no middle game. The U.S. is well-prepared to win a global conflict of the type we all hope must never be fought. He is very comfortable with minimalist, orthoscopic, pinprick responses to problems. But most of the challenges we face from Russia in the Crimea to Assad in Syria to China in the East and South China Seas are middle-range problems, where neither a big war nor a big speech will get the job done.
Yet time and again, this administration has proven that beyond empty or limited gestures - a few sanctions on Putin's Russian cronies, legal action against Chinese PLA officers who will never see the inside of a court, halting efforts in Syria that have only empowered Bashir Assad - it lacks the creativity, will, or appetite for moderate risk to undertake effective responses.
Unfortunately, we just ended up back in the foreign-policy aisle at Wal-Mart, stocking up on old ideas packed in the thin syrup of tired formulations and offered in bulk.
Genuine new thinking is needed. Precious little, unfortunately, was offered in the president's West Point remarks.
David Rothkopf is CEO and editor of Foreign Policy. His most recent book is "Running the World: The Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power."