At West Point, Obama defends his moderation-based foreign policy

At West Point, Obama defends his moderation-based foreign policy
President Obama hands out diplomas to the graduating class of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where his commencement speech addressed criticism of his foreign policy strategy. (Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

With the end of the nation's longest war in sight, President Obama on Wednesday outlined his vision for a U.S. foreign policy that is skeptical of new military engagements and prepared to juggle high-tech threats, rising regional powers and terrorist hot spots.

Although the White House had touted the speech as a major foreign policy address, Obama didn't outline a sweeping doctrine or new set of policy goals. Instead, he mounted a forceful defense of the mostly minimalist, multilateral policies he has followed overseas since taking office in 2009.

"U.S. military action cannot be the only — or even primary — component of our leadership in every instance," Obama told the graduating class at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. "Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail."

He did not dwell on his administration's embrace of armed drones to kill suspected terrorists and militants, chiefly in Pakistan and Yemen. The drone strikes have sparked outrage in several countries, and arguably are the most controversial part of Obama's foreign policy legacy.


The president sought to explain what critics call his whack-a-mole approach to tackling crises in the world, from Syria to Ukraine to Nigeria. A growing group of experts has argued that the lack of clear White House strategy has strained U.S. credibility with allies in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, and emboldened adversaries in Moscow, Beijing and elsewhere.

Obama acknowledged those dangers. "Russia's aggression toward former Soviet states unnerves capitals in Europe, while China's economic rise and military reach worries its neighbors," he said.

But he took on the critique by praising moderation, not intervention, and emphasizing the use of diplomacy, alliances and investments to expand and protect U.S. interests around the world.

And he reminded the future soldiers of what the White House hopes will be his chief foreign policy accomplishment: disengagement from two wars, and a reluctance to send U.S. ground troops into other conflicts.

Obama spoke a day after the White House announced his decision to withdraw all but 9,800 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and leave only a token force by the time his term ends in 2017.

Though terrorism is still the "most direct threat" to Americans at home and abroad, invasions of countries that harbor terrorist networks are not sustainable, the president said. Instead, he argued, America must shift counter-terrorism strategy "to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold."

Obama framed his position as a middle ground between "self-described realists" who say that conflicts in Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere "are not ours to solve" and interventionists on the left and right who say that "America's willingness to apply force around the world is the ultimate safeguard against chaos."

Analysts said the president was setting up false arguments.

"I don't think anybody is arguing the U.S. should act against every injustice around the world," said Jon Alterman, Middle East specialist at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"And I don't think anybody is arguing the U.S. should be reckless. The challenge is articulating what we do and when we do it, in a way that builds partnerships and builds confidence in American leadership.

"The complaint that I've heard," he said, "is about the administration's instinct to talk and not to act."

Obama sought to show he was taking action, although the steps were modest. He announced plans to ask Congress to approve a new $5-billion counter-terrorism fund, which could support the sort of indirect, nimble military assistance he sees as crucial in the new world.

He said the money could help support allies "on the front lines" of terrorism, citing support for security forces battling Al Qaeda in Yemen, international peacekeepers in Somalia, a border patrol and security force in Libya, and French counter-terrorism operations in Mali.

Recipients would also include moderate opposition forces trying to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad, as well as Syria's neighbors — Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq — as they deal with refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war and confront terrorists who have spilled across the borders.

The president did not detail the type of assistance he would seek. A senior administration official said it could include weapons and other military aid to rebel fighters.

The vague promises seemed aimed at countering the harsh criticism Obama has faced for his policy on Syria. The White House has been blasted for standing idle while more than 150,000 people have died in the 3-year-old conflict.

Obama seemed intent on demonstrating the prudence he advocates.

"As president, I made a decision that we should not put American troops into the middle of this increasingly sectarian civil war, and I believe that is the right decision," he said. "But that does not mean we shouldn't help the Syrian people stand up against a dictator who bombs and starves his own people."

Critics said U.S. allies and foes alike needed to know that Washington will back up its threats with action. They said his refusal to get more directly involved in Syria and other crises had created doubt about U.S. intentions.

"The result has been a general loss of U.S. credibility, making successful foreign policy nearly impossible," Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said after the address. "President Obama's diplomatic efforts cannot work if our allies lack confidence in U.S. commitments and our opponents do not fear U.S. warnings."

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said Obama was doing too little too late in Syria.

"While there were options for helping the once-mostly moderate opposition forces, in many places extremist rebels have now taken control of the front lines," McCaul said. "Therefore President Obama's decision to wait until now to address the crisis will affect not only our national but homeland security for years to come."