White House

President Obama to West Point: ‘America Has Rarely Been Stronger’ Globally Than It Is Now

The president used a Wednesday commencement address to detail a new view of America’s place in the world.

President Obama walks toward Marine One while departing the White House, on May 28, 2014 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
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Kaveh Waddell
May 28, 2014, 7:14 a.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama out­lined a for­eign policy strategy at Wed­nes­day’s West Point com­mence­ment, just a day after present­ing a frame­work for draw­ing down troops in Afgh­anistan be­fore the end of his second term.

In the speech, Obama high­lighted a shift away from the large-scale wars that he in­her­ited from his pre­de­cessor, opt­ing in­stead to move to­ward a strategy of sup­port­ing loc­al mil­it­ar­ies’ fights against ter­ror­ism with fund­ing, train­ing, and equip­ment. To this end, Obama said Wed­nes­day that he will ask Con­gress for a $5 bil­lion Coun­terter­ror­ism Part­ner­ships Fund to “train, build ca­pa­city, and fa­cil­it­ate part­ner coun­tries on the front lines.”

Even as he out­lined a new dir­ec­tion for for­eign en­gage­ment, Obama de­fen­ded the policies of his first term and a half. He re­spon­ded sharply to crit­ics who have painted his for­eign policy stance as weak, re­as­sert­ing the U.S.’s role as glob­al lead­er. “Here’s my bot­tom line: Amer­ica must al­ways lead on the world stage,” the pres­id­ent said. “If we don’t, no one else will.” And the pres­id­ent is bullish on where the U.S. cur­rently stands: “In fact, by most meas­ures, Amer­ica has rarely been stronger re­l­at­ive to the rest of the world.”

But he dis­tanced him­self from the full-on mil­it­ary op­er­a­tions he over­saw in Afgh­anistan and Ir­aq, call­ing for a more con­cer­ted ef­fort to en­gage with oth­er coun­tries in coun­terter­ror­ism op­er­a­tions. “We must broaden our tools to in­clude dip­lomacy and de­vel­op­ment; sanc­tions and isol­a­tion; ap­peals to in­ter­na­tion­al law and — if just, ne­ces­sary, and ef­fect­ive — mul­ti­lat­er­al mil­it­ary ac­tion,” Obama said. “We must do so be­cause col­lect­ive ac­tion in these cir­cum­stances is more likely to suc­ceed, more likely to be sus­tained, and less likely to lead to costly mis­takes.”

Ele­ments of this new strategy are already ap­par­ent in Afgh­anistan, Syr­ia, and parts of Africa.

In Afgh­anistan, U.S. troop levels will be drawn down to 9,800 by the end of this year, when com­bat op­er­a­tions will end. In the fol­low­ing year, the re­main­ing troops will train Afghan se­cur­ity forces and co­oper­ate on coun­terter­ror­ism op­er­a­tions. By the time Obama leaves of­fice, the only Amer­ic­an forces left in Afgh­anistan will be a small con­tin­gent guard­ing the U.S. Em­bassy in Ka­bul.

The pres­id­ent also used the speech to an­nounce in­creased sup­port for the op­pos­i­tion in Syr­ia, where U.S. in­volve­ment has been paltry since the be­gin­ning of the civil war more than three years ago. “We look at the Syr­ia con­flict as part of a broad­er coun­terter­ror­ism chal­lenge, and that is why we’re go­ing to con­tin­ue in­creas­ing our sup­port to the mod­er­ate op­pos­i­tion, who of­fer the best al­tern­at­ive to both the mur­der­ous As­sad dic­tat­or­ship and the ex­trem­ists who have ex­ploited the crisis,” White House press sec­ret­ary Jay Car­ney said be­fore the speech.

In four Afric­an coun­tries, these train­ing pro­grams have already be­gun. The New York Times re­ports that mem­bers of the Amer­ic­an mil­it­ary have been train­ing elite forces in Libya, Ni­ger, Maur­it­ania, and Mali since last year. The Pentagon is spend­ing $70 mil­lion on these pro­grams.

This strategy of smal­ler-scale en­gage­ment in many places at once makes sense, Obama said, be­cause “today’s prin­cip­al threat no longer comes from a cent­ral­ized al-Qaida lead­er­ship. In­stead, it comes from de­cent­ral­ized al-Qaida af­fil­i­ates and ex­trem­ists, many with agen­das fo­cused in the coun­tries where they op­er­ate.” Obama’s policy shift in­tends to re­flect this new real­ity. “We need a strategy that matches this dif­fuse threat; one that ex­pands our reach without send­ing forces that stretch our mil­it­ary thin, or stir up loc­al re­sent­ments.”

Re­turn­ing to dip­lomacy, Pres­id­ent Obama touched on his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­cent pres­sure on Rus­sia and Ir­an. Tout­ing the mul­ti­lat­er­al co­ali­tions be­hind both, he said, “This is Amer­ic­an lead­er­ship. This is Amer­ic­an strength. In each case, we built co­ali­tions to re­spond to a spe­cif­ic chal­lenge.” He stood up to “skep­tics” who ques­tion the ef­fect­ive­ness of mul­ti­lat­er­al en­gage­ment: “I be­lieve in Amer­ic­an ex­cep­tion­al­ism with every fiber of my be­ing. But 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.”

The pres­id­ent ended on a hope­ful note, seek­ing to frame his new for­eign policy dir­ec­tion as a con­tinu­ation of Amer­ic­an lead­er­ship on the world stage. Lead­er­ship, he said, “re­quires us to see the world as it should be — a place where the as­pir­a­tions of in­di­vidu­al hu­man be­ings mat­ter; where hopes and not just fears gov­ern; where the truths writ­ten in­to our found­ing doc­u­ments can steer the cur­rents of his­tory in the dir­ec­tion of justice.”


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