When it comes to foreign policy, it is critical that American Presidents adhere to a simple rule: say what you mean and mean what you say.
Since World War II, the United States largely followed this policy resulting in the collapse of the Soviet Union and an era of unprecedented security and prosperity for both the U.S. and the world.
Believing that this rule applies irrespective of who occupies the White House, I joined other Republican leaders to voice support when President Obama announced in September 2013 that military action may be necessary in response to Assad's use of chemical weapons in Syria. President Obama had drawn a line in the sand and it needed to be enforced.
Yet the President retreated from this threat and today, Assad is still in power, is still in possession of chemical weapons, and is still slaughtering his own people. Unfortunately, this is but one of several examples of a foreign policy that is indecisive and confused. The President's policies have emboldened our adversaries and concerned our allies – all with real-world consequences. President Obama often says the right thing without execution or worse, acting in a counterproductive way.
Today's address at West Point was a goldilocks speech. Trying to find the lukewarm bowl of porridge will not likely reassure those who worry about our lack of leadership, and will not concern those who fear its return.
At West Point, President Obama noted that Syria remains a crisis that is spilling across borders, and as a result "the capacity of battle-hardened groups to come after us increases." I agree. Syria is increasingly becoming a haven for terrorists, some linked to al Qaeda.
Yet, the President's retreat on Syria and subsequent inaction has made this terrorist threat both worse and harder to solve. Moreover, his inaction has allowed Iran, Hizballah, and Russia to double-down on their support of the Syrian regime, increasing the likelihood they will share in any Assad victory.
I welcome the President's call to work with Congress to ramp up support for those in the Syrian opposition who offer us the best alternative to the current regime and the terrorists who support it. However, after years of dithering on Syria, it's time for President Obama make a more direct case to the American people about why Syria matters and which objectives he hopes to achieve.
President Obama told the cadets that we reserve all options to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Yet, Iran is now closer than ever to a nuclear weapons capability despite his red-line, and it is still making progress. The interim deal allows Iran to continue sophisticated research into uranium enrichment and to benefit from relaxed sanctions, while failing to require Iran to come clean on its past or present nuclear-weapons related activities. Far from accepting President Obama's outreached hand, the Iranians have expanded their support for terrorism and instability in the region (see Iraq and Syria) and even planned a terrorist bombing on American soil. President Obama may be serious in saying all options are on the table, but the problem is neither Iran nor others in the region believe such a threat is credible.
The first nation in the crosshairs of Iran and terrorists across the region is the state of Israel. Yet, President Obama barely mentioned the threat our ally faces, nor did he address the failed peace talks where Secretary Kerry continually admonished Israel for building homes in Jerusalem, while terrorists' rockets were launched into Israel from Gaza. Our commitment to Israel cannot be questioned or set on the back burner, especially when Kerry accuses the Israelis of building an "apartheid state" while the Palestinian Authority may be welcoming Hamas back into the fold.
Incredibly, President Obama did not mention the threat of North Korea, but did say climate change threatened our policy in Asia. A nuclear-armed tyrant in North Korea looms, and our allies remain concerned about our commitment to the region as they face an increasingly confident and aggressive China. The President promotes trade agreements as a stabilizing factor yet refuses to engage his own party on pursuing more trade alliances.
Crimea is lost, Moscow is threatening eastern Ukraine, and yet, President Obama said American leadership "isolated" Russia. While the Ukrainian elections were indeed a positive sign, our policy towards Russia has been anything but a success for the past 6 years.
From the beginning, this administration fundamentally misunderstood Russia as Secretary of State Clinton pressed the "reset" button in 2009. Or when the President mocked Governor Romney's assertion that Russia remained a geopolitical foe, joking "the 1980's are calling, they want their foreign policy back."
Invading Ukraine wasn't Russia's first act of aggression. President Putin was already a dogged supporter of tyrants, including Bashar Assad, and a notorious violator of international agreements. If we fail to treat Putin as an adversary when he behaves like one, it will be only a matter of time before he violates the sovereignty of another country. It's one thing to condemn a terrible act, it is quite another to help prevent one from occurring.
President Obama announced his plan to wind down the war in Afghanistan. Since entering office, the President's only clear objective for what he once called the "war of necessity" has been to end it based on the political calendar. Less clear is whether he ever sought to win it.
From the beginning, he ignored his commanders on the ground and not only authorized a smaller surge than military leaders requested but he put a timeline on it, telling our adversaries they need only wait us out. He has largely been silent on Afghanistan since, and has failed to communicate to the American people the dangers that still emanate from this far-off region of the world.
President Obama told the cadets that al Qaeda had been decimated in the region. Make no mistake, al Qaeda and other terrorist networks continue to pose a threat to the United States. And these terrorists have sought and so far succeeded in filling the vacuum created by declining U.S. leadership whether in Iraq, Syria, or Libya – where "leading from behind" has left us with a country that strongly resembles Afghanistan of 2001. A failure of U.S. leadership in Afghanistan would mean al Qaeda's resurgence in the very place from which they launched the 9-11 attacks.
President Obama alleged his critics downplay the effectiveness of multilateral action, or see it as a sign of weakness. I have not seen this point argued by his critics. The U.S. shouldn't have to go it alone and the coalitions in Iraq and Afghanistan served us well. But the international system doesn't exist independent of the nations that make up that system. Its international laws are not self-enforcing.
Since World War II the U.S. has been the indispensable nation, dedicated to defending an international order that benefits America's interests, and those of the free world. This international system is under assault, and maintaining it will require American leadership and resolve. Attempting to split the difference between isolationism and an America that leads will only make our current situation worse.
March to War
President Obama likes to pretend that every criticism of his foreign policy is a call to war somewhere. In fact, a great deal of his address was spent comparing his policies to "military adventures." This straw man insults the American people, and makes it harder for honest brokers to work together to help respond to some incredible challenges and threats.
While I am encouraged the President took the opportunity today to outline his vision of foreign policy, speeches are not policy. Rhetorical shifts will not alter the reality that America is increasingly viewed as a paper tiger. Only a restoration of American leadership, and changes in our policies and actions will restore our credibility and influence throughout the world.
An America that leads strives for peace, but is prepared for conflict. An America that leads provides the guidance, security, and coordination necessary to keep the peace. An America that leads must have a renewed determination to wage the battle for moderation over extremism, and to shape the outcome of broader political transformations.
The President has two and a half years to demonstrate to the world he is more than a gifted orator, that he is prepared to defend America's interests and allies. He will have many opportunities to demonstrate his resolve, and if he charts the right course he will have my steadfast support.
Eric Cantor, a Republican, is Majority Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives and represents Virginia's 7th congressional district.
Opinions expressed in this column do not reflect the views of ABC News.