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
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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