After months of running his foreign policy like a firefighter responding to alarms, President Obama is worried that Americans don’t understand his overall approach and plans to launch a campaign to explain it over the coming months.
The president will use a commencement speech Wednesday at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point to outline a second-term foreign policy that is “interventionist and internationalist, but not isolationist or unilateral,” a senior advisor familiar with the plans said Saturday.
“The United States is the only nation capable of galvanizing action,” said the advisor, who asked for anonymity to discuss White House plans before the address.
Obama believes that “we need to put that to use in an international system that is sustainable and enduring,” the advisor said, “and that can address challenges, from traditional ones like maritime and trade issues, to emerging ones like climate change.”
Obama sees the U.S. moving out of a period of war and entering a new one marked by different global priorities, advisors say.
But while the administration has focused on crises in Syria and Ukraine, and fought for equilibrium after damaging leaks about national security and intelligence practices, the U.S. response has come across as more ad hoc than comprehensive.
The White House has signaled for weeks that it wanted to use the West Point remarks to articulate its doctrine and counter criticism from once friendly corners that Obama’s foreign policy is adrift.
On his recent Asia tour, Obama repeatedly and bluntly defended his policies in Ukraine, Syria, Asia and the Mideast, arguing that he successfully rallied the international community and made good on U.S. commitments while avoiding new conflicts, which Americans say they don’t want.
Although Obama seemed irked by having to mount such a defense, aides in the White House acknowledged that they needed to better communicate the president’s thinking, particularly to diplomats, foreign policy analysts and world leaders.
The heads of state Obama once easily courted parted ways with the president’s decision to back off plans for an airstrike in Syria while he sought congressional approval.
That episode has helped to create a credibility gap that increasingly has allies questioning whether Obama would remain committed to their interests if it meant using military force.
Privately, White House officials have described the working label for Obama’s doctrine as “Don’t do stupid stuff.” Within the tight circle of foreign policy aides in the White House, the shorthand captured Obama’s resistance to a rigid catch-all doctrine, as well as his aversion to what he once called the “dumb war” in Iraq.
One advisor to the president said he wants Americans to understand what that overall approach means for such “hot spots” as Ukraine, Iran and Syria.
The president’s challenge will be to explain not just a doctrine but its application, advisors agree.
“The thing that concerns me the most is that we are kind of bouncing from issue to issue without a clear articulation of what the national security interest of the United States actually is,” former Democratic Sen. Jim Webb said last week in an interview on “The Diane Rehm Show.”
White House officials and the president often fend off critics by suggesting that their prescriptions would start a new war.
For some, that argument has been wearing thin, particularly as the Syrian civil war rages on while the U.S. seems locked at a standstill.
“They define themselves in contrast to their predecessors and the enormous sins of commission there,” said Barry Pavel, a former advisor to Obama who is now vice president of the Atlantic Council. “I think they’ve swung way too far in the direction of sins of omission.”
Americans may be war-weary, but a president’s job is to do the unpopular and difficult, Pavel said. “The world is not going to wait for us to recover,” Pavel said. “As they say, sometimes the enemy gets a vote here.”
The president has taken several previous stabs at outlining his doctrine. He has emphasized multilateral coalitions, stating flatly in 2009, as he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, “America cannot act alone. America alone cannot secure the peace.”
And he has emphasized the importance of the international community developing alternatives to military intervention — such as sanctions — that “exact a real price” and pile on pressure.
The White House often points to its action in Libya as a model for this Obama-style intervention. And after a U.S.-led coalition launched airstrikes on government forces surrounding Benghazi, the president made it the case study for his argument.
The U.S. had “an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves. We also had the ability to stop Kadafi’s forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground.”
“As president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action,” Obama said in March 2011, as he declared the mission a success. But those words provide an unfortunate contrast with the images of slaughter in Syria.
Members of his Cabinet will follow up with their own speeches in a coordinated effort to help their boss explain.
The campaign is designed to show how the U.S. moves from Iraq and Afghanistan to a “new stage in our engagement with the world,” the advisor said, as well as “what we expect to accomplish over the next 2 1/2 years.”