President Obama on Wednesday laid out a vision for American leadership in the world that rejects both the reliance on military action of the past decade and today’s growing isolationism by putting the emphasis on strengthening alliances and international cooperation.
Delivering the commencement address at the US Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., Mr. Obama told the graduates that while “American isolationism is not an option,” a "willingness to rush into military adventures” since the 9/11 terror attacks had produced “some of our most costly mistakes.”
Having closed the Iraq war, aiming to end the US military presence in Afghanistan by 2016, and with 31 months left in his presidency, Obama appeared to be closing the book on the era of George W. Bush, who 12 years ago had outlined his doctrine of preventive war and unilateral intervention in a similar West Point address.
Instead, he said, America must lead by “empowering partners” with like values of freedom and democracy to meet the threats, from extremism to climate change, that if unaddressed overseas end up threatening US national security.
To illustrate his approach, Obama announced a $5 billion “counterterrorism partnership fund” to allow the US military and diplomatic corps to ramp up training and capacity-building in countries from Asia to Africa that are on the “front lines” of an evolving but no less dangerous terrorism threat.
Saying that for the foreseeable future terrorism will remain “the most direct threat to America at home and abroad,” the president emphasized that the challenge today is to build a strategy to defeat the “diffuse threat” of decentralized Al Qaeda affiliates and extremist groups.
But other than the new counterterrorism partnership fund, the speech was devoid of initiatives or proposals and instead seemed aimed at refuting mounting criticism both domestically and among some worried international partners that his foreign policy is weak and rudderless.
Twice in his speech – referring to the recent political changes in Myanmar (Burma) and to last weekend’s successful presidential election in Ukraine – Obama said that the United States, through diplomacy and together with international partners, had been able to address explosive situations “without us firing a shot.”
Iran, too, presents an opportunity to resolve significant differences peacefully, he said, referring to the international talks aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear program and ensuring that Tehran never builds a nuclear weapon. Although he acknowledged that the “odds” of achieving a “breakthrough agreement” on Iran’s nuclear program “are still long,” Obama said it was American leadership based on working through “multilateral channels” that makes a peaceful resolution possible.
The president also signaled that he intends to reinvigorate America’s role as a leader in the international effort to battle climate change – another global challenge he said the US cannot solve alone but will need partners and international institutions to address.
None of those arguments seems likely to quiet Obama’s critics, including Republican senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who say the president’s rejection of the use of military force has sent a message of a weak and withdrawn America.
For those critics – and for others overseas, including some close foreign partners – it is the Syrian conflict that stands out as glaring evidence of how Obama’s very high bar for US military intervention only emboldens despots and enemies of international order such as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Nearly three years ago, those critics note, Obama declared that Mr. Assad “must go” and that the Syrian people must be allowed to determine their own path forward. Nearly two years ago, the same American president warned Assad that he would cross a “red line” and trigger US military action if he used chemical weapons.
But after three years of civil war, more than 150,000 Syrians have died, the critics point out, anti-Western extremist groups are on the rise, and Assad – who allegedly used chemical weapons to subdue his own people – is making military advances and planning to be reelected next month as president in perpetuity.
Obama devoted two paragraphs of a lengthy foreign policy speech to Syria. Aside from asserting that there is no military solution to the Syrian conflict and that it was the “right decision” not to “put American troops in the middle of this increasingly sectarian civil war,” the president offered little in the way of “American leadership” for addressing Syria over the coming months.
Obama suggested that assistance to Syria’s moderate armed opposition could be ramped up in the coming weeks – the administration has hinted that the Pentagon could be assigned to training the opposition, a role so far restricted to the Central Intelligence Agency – but any deeper US involvement is off the table.
The president asserted that by virtue of its economic power, unmatched military, values, and spirit of innovation, America will remain the world’s “exceptional” leader. The real question, he said, is not “whether America will lead, but how we will lead.”
But other than virtually ruling out American boots on the ground in foreign conflicts and emphasizing international partnerships, Obama’s speech gave few specifics on the “how” of US global leadership for the remainder of his presidency.