President Obama praised the potential of American leadership around the globe on Wednesday while laying out a new definition of that term, downplaying military might and emphasizing diplomacy, alliances and the will to “lead by example.”
Standing before a crowd of 1,000 new Army officers at the U.S. Military Academy's graduation ceremony in West Point, N.Y., Obama commissioned them to be part of a team that extends beyond the armed forces to include diplomats and development experts.
“America must always lead on the world stage. If we don’t, no one else will,” Obama told the cadets. “The military that you have joined is, and always will be, the backbone of that leadership.
“But U.S. military action cannot be the only, or even primary, component of our leadership in every instance,” Obama said. “Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.”
In the sweeping commencement speech, Obama rejected critics’ suggestions that he is an isolationist because of his unwillingness to commit military force to end the crisis in Syria or to threaten anything more than sanctions to limit the Russian aggression in Ukraine.
Instead, Obama embraced the label “interventionism” even as he cited presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Roosevelt and Truman in making a case that the U.S. should think long and hard before committing its military.
In discussing the U.S. response in Syria, Obama announced that he will work with Congress to ramp up support for moderate factions in the opposition that are opposed not only to President Bashar Assad but also to extremist rebels.
But he also seized on the case of Syria to underscore his principle of using the military only when American core interests are at stake, defining that as when “our people are threatened, when our livelihood is at stake or when the security of our allies is in danger.”
On the other hand, when such issues don’t pose a direct threat to the U.S., he said, the threshold for military action is higher and requires American leaders to mobilize allies and partners to take collective action.
Just a day after announcing that he will complete the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan at the end of 2016, Obama described for the graduating cadets the new threat he says the country is now facing from the Middle East to the Sahel region of Africa.
The principal threat to the U.S. no longer comes from a centralized al-Qaeda leadership, Obama said, but rather from a diffuse array of affiliates and extremists, many of them with agendas focused on the countries where they operate. “This lessens the possibility of large-scale 9/11-style attacks against the homeland, but heightens the danger to U.S. personnel overseas, as we saw in Benghazi; or less defensible targets, as we saw in a shopping mall in Nairobi,” Obama said. “We need a strategy that matches this diffuse threat; one that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military thin, or stir up local resentments.”
That strategy, he said, depends on using a range of tools including diplomacy, development, sanctions and isolation, along with appeals to international law and, where “necessary and effective,” multilateral military action. “We must do so because collective action in these circumstances is more likely to succeed, more likely to be sustained, and less likely to lead to costly mistakes.