WEST POINT, N.Y. — President Obama on Wednesday laid out his vision for a comprehensive post-9/11 foreign policy after more than a decade of war overseas, arguing for a new form of American leadership that strikes a balance between interventionism and avoiding “foreign entanglements.”
Speaking in front of 1,000 cadets here at the U.S. Military Academy’s commencement ceremony, Obama articulated an approach that he said would employ targeted force in a responsible fashion, including a new initiative aimed at responding to terrorist threats. He sought to blunt growing criticism from political rivals who have called his administration feckless in its response to global crises in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere.
Many of the policies and positions had been outlined by the president and his aides previously on a piecemeal basis. But Wednesday’s address was focused on pulling those strands together into a coherent postwar outlook for U.S. foreign policy — and was delivered to an audience of graduating cadets who are likely to be the first since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, not to be deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq.
Obama stressed the importance of nonmilitary options in addressing the world’s challenges, as well as collective international action. Coming more than six years into a presidency devoted to winding down the wars, the speech featured a firm defense of his administration’s handling of foreign crises — including those in Nigeria, Syria and Ukraine — and a suggestion that many critics are out of step with a nation tired from 13 years of war.
“Here’s my bottom line: America must always lead,” Obama said. “If we don’t, no one else will. 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 the primary — component of our leadership in every instance.”
The White House hoped the speech — coming a day after Obama announced plans to significantly draw down U.S. forces in Afghanistan by year’s end — would mark a new phase in the administration’s foreign policy and act as a counterweight to the escalating critiques from those on the left and the right who have called on him to be more assertive abroad.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Obama’s presidential challenger in 2008 and one of Capitol Hill’s most vocal hawks, attacked the West Point address as an insufficient response to global threats and argued that Obama mischaracterized his foes as clamoring for military conflict.
“It is unfortunate that the president once again fell back on his familiar tactic of attacking straw-men, posturing as the voice of reason between extremes, and suggesting that the only alternative to his policies is the unilateral use of military force everywhere,” McCain said in a statement. “Literally no one is proposing that, and it is intellectually dishonest to suggest so.”
But Obama’s speech appeared to be less about changing the terms of the foreign policy debate in Washington than about appealing to a war-weary electorate, which twice chose him as president on platforms of steady withdrawal from foreign military operations. The address echoed Obama’s earlier defenses of his foreign policy — stressing such themes as multilateralism, Muslim outreach and ending torture — as a corrective response to the approach of the George W. Bush administration.
The remarks, delivered to the newest members of the nation’s elite military officer class, also came as the administration struggled to respond to findings that Department of Veterans Affairs officials in Phoenix concealed chronically long wait times for patients awaiting care.
Polls show public support waning for direct U.S. military intervention in international conflicts, and parents applauded Wednesday when Obama noted that the cadets in attendance may not have to serve in Iraq or Afghanistan. At the same time, public approval of Obama’s handling of foreign affairs also has dropped in recent polls.
Critics have charged that the administration has not projected a clear and strong response to the Russian invasion of Crimea, Syria’s use of chemical weapons and a terrorist group’s abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls in Nigeria.
In response, Obama called on Congress to support a new $5 billion “Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund” to respond to evolving terrorist threats around the world, emphasizing that “for the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America at home and abroad remains terrorism.”
One critical focus of the effort, he said, would be the crisis in Syria, where three years of civil war have left more than 150,000 people dead and much of the country in ruins. White House officials said the additional resources would allow the United States to step up efforts to support countries bordering Syria, which have had to take in refugees and confront terrorists, and to help train and support rebel forces fighting the Bashar al-
“The partnership I’ve described does not eliminate the need to take direct action when necessary to protect ourselves,” Obama warned. “When we have actionable intelligence, that’s what we do.”
But he said direct actions must conform with U.S. values. “That means taking strikes only when we face a continuing, imminent threat, and only where there is near certainty of no civilian casualties,” he said. “For our actions should meet a simple test: We must not create more enemies than we take off the battlefield.”
Obama paid an unannounced visit to Afghanistan over the Memorial Day weekend to thank troops. He also announced Tuesday that the United States will draw down to 9,800 forces there in a training and counterterrorism mission by year’s end, cutting that number in half by 2016.
Next week, Obama will meet with U.S. allies in Brussels to further discuss the responses to Russian aggression, and he’ll visit the beaches of Normandy in remembrance of D-Day.
But the president, in his remarks here at West Point, made clear the costs of sending U.S. forces into a conflict zone. Gazing out at the uniformed rows of graduating cadets, he recalled his visit to the academy in 2009, when he announced a surge of forces in Afghanistan, and said that four cadets who graduated that day five years ago “gave their lives in that effort.”
“I believe America’s security demanded those deployments,” he said. “But I am haunted by those deaths. . . . And I would betray my duty to you and to the country we love if I ever sent you into harm’s way simply because I saw a problem somewhere in the world that needed to be fixed, or because I was worried about critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak.”
A counterterrorism strategy “that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naive and unsustainable,” Obama added. “I believe we must shift our counterterrorism strategy — drawing on the successes and shortcomings of our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan — to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold.”
Obama made clear that he has long since moved past his initial skepticism about the United States’ role as an “indispensable nation” — a position that drew Republican attacks early in his administration. On Wednesday, he declared that “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being.”
But he said that “what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it’s our willingness to affirm them through our actions.”
In seeking to blunt his critics, Obama pointed to small steps of progress, including negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program and the outcome of the presidential election in Ukraine last weekend, when a pro-Europe businessman emerged victorious despite intimidation at the polls from pro-Russia separatists.
Obama acknowledged that the odds of a nuclear deal with Iran “are still long,” but he said there remained “a very real chance of a breakthrough agreement” for the first time in a decade, “one that is more effective and durable than what we could have achieved through the use of force.”
The point, Obama added, “is this is American leadership. This is American strength.”
William Branigin and Scott Wilson in Washington contributed to this report.