In the commencement address at the U.S. Military Academy in West
Point, Obama laid out his approach to foreign affairs for the rest
of his presidency built on a commitment to act in concert with other
nations, and he shifted the fight against terrorism from Afghanistan
to more diffuse threats globally.
Obama, stung by unrelenting criticism that he has been passive and
indecisive as a world leader, spent a large section of his address
countering Republicans in Congress and foreign policy experts in
Washington who argue for a more aggressive approach to crises from
Ukraine to Syria.
He cast himself as striking a middle ground between war mongers and
"Tough talk often draws headlines, but war rarely conforms to
slogans," he said. America must lead on the world stage but “U.S.
military action cannot be the only – or even primary – component of
our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best
hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail,” he said.
The vision he set out reflected a president determined to avoid a
repeat of what he considers a mistaken war in Iraq and to end the
conflict in Afghanistan, where the United States sent troops
following the Sept. 11, 2001 hijacked-plane attacks. But he likely
did little to silence critics who feel he is setting aside a global
role traditionally filled by robust American policies.
Republican Senator John McCain, whom Obama defeated in the 2008
election, accused the president of "posturing as the voice of reason
between extremes," and suggesting that to oppose his policies is to
support the unilateral use of military force everywhere. "Literally
no one is proposing that, and it is intellectually dishonest to
suggest so," he said.
Obama announced a $5 billion proposal to serve as a “partnership
fund” to help countries fight terrorism on their soil. The White
House said Obama would work with Congress to find the money for the
program in the tight federal budget.
The funds would train and equip other countries to fight "violent
extremism and terrorist ideology."
Obama’s refusal to use military action against the government of
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for use of chemical weapons last
year, after he had threatened to do, hurt his image among allies
such as Saudi Arabia.
Obama, however, says his threats paid off with an international deal
to secure and eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles.
He said he will work with Congress to "ramp up support for those in
the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists
and brutal dictators," but he offered no specifics.
Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq will also get additional resources
to help house Syrian refugees. That money will come from the new
fund, a senior administration official said.
"As frustrating as it is, there are no easy answers, no military
solution that can eliminate the terrible suffering anytime soon,"
Obama said about Syria.
The Syrian Opposition Coalition welcomed Obama's promise. "The
Syrian people and the opposition forces stand committed to work with
their friends and to expand strategic cooperation in countering the
terrorism enabled by the Assad regime in Syria," it said in a
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LEADERSHIP AND CAVEATS
Obama pointed to progress toward persuading Iran to give up nuclear
weapons as a solid dividend of his multilateral diplomacy. And he
said the firm stance by the United States and its European allies
has been pivotal in persuading Russia to halt its advances on
Ukraine after Moscow’s seizure of Crimea.
“This is American leadership. This is American strength. In each
case, we built coalitions to respond to a specific challenge,” he
But here too there are caveats. On Iran, Obama acknowledged odds for
success are still long and it is yet to be seen how Russian
President Vladimir Putin will react to Ukraine’s latest crackdown on
pro-Russian separatists in the east.
"We don’t know how the situation will play out and there will remain
grave challenges ahead, but standing with our allies on behalf of
international order working with international institutions, has
given a chance for the Ukrainian people to choose their future," he
The president also pledged that the United States would be a leader
in forming an international agreement next year on measures to
combat global warming and condemned Republicans who question whether
climate change is real.
Obama critics were unmoved. "Across the spectrum, there is concern
that under Barack Obama, America is in withdrawal mode," said
Representative Mac Thornberry, a senior Republican on the House
Armed Services Committee.
“Even a president with rhetorical gifts cannot finesse his way out
of military weakness or the loss of credibility in the world,”
Thornberry said in a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation
Some in Obama's audience at West Point were also non-plussed. "He
was too wishy-washy," said John Dodson, a 1968 West Point graduate.
"When you’re not perceived to be strong and vigorous all your
enemies are more willing to take chances."
(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton, Susan Heavey and Jeff
Mason in Washington and; Edward Krudy in West Point; Editing by
David Storey and Grant McCool)
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