Obama emphasizes nonmilitary options in foreign-policy speech
Speaking in front of 1,000 cadets at the U.S. Military Academy commencement, 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 Russia, Syria, and elsewhere.
Many of the policies and postures 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 9/11 attacks 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.
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; 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 alleged that the administration has not projected a clear and strong response to the Russian invasion of Crimea, Syria's use of chemical weapons, and an extremist group's mass abduction 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."
Next week, Obama will meet with U.S. allies in Brussels to further discuss the responses to Russian aggression, and he'll visit Normandy in remembrance of D-Day.
But the president, in his remarks at West Point, made clear the costs of sending U.S. forces into a conflict zone. Gazing out at the 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."