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Obama Tells Cadets U.S. Must Refocus on Terrorism

By Phil Mattingly and Margaret Talev
May 28, 2014 12:29 PM EDT 1321 Comments
President Barack Obama arrives at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, to deliver the commencement address to the 2014 graduating class on May 28, 2014. Photogapher: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images
President Barack Obama arrives at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, to deliver the commencement address to the 2014 graduating class on May 28, 2014. Photogapher: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

President Barack Obama laid out a postwar strategy for his final years in office that would provide a more targeted approach to the scattered threat of terrorism while moving away from unilateral military action.

In a commencement speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, the U.S. president proposed a $5 billion fund for military counterterrorism operations. He also said he’ll work with Congress to expand support for Syrian rebels, without committing publicly to U.S. military training for groups seeking to topple Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

“America must always lead on the world stage,” Obama said. “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.”

Obama sought to give a clearer vision of his policy as he faces critics at home and abroad who have cast the president as weak and ineffective. He spoke today as the U.S. confronts international challenges with long-term consequences.

Those include nuclear negotiations with Iran, a civil war in Syria that’s destabilizing its neighbors and fueling Islamic extremism, a Russian president seeking to destabilize Ukraine and divide Europe, and a Chinese government that’s flexing its military and economic might.

Rebutting Critics

Much of the president’s speech took the form of a rebuttal to critics who have argued for a more direct U.S. response in hot spots from Syria to Ukraine to Nigeria. The president said his approach will continue to rely on cooperative action with allies and diplomacy to resolve disputes among nations.

“Of course, skeptics often downplay the effectiveness of multilateral action,” Obama said. “For them, working through international institutions, or respecting international law, is a sign of weakness. I think they’re wrong.”

He cited the U.S. actions to rally allies to condemn Russia’s actions in Ukraine and impose sanctions, and progress in negotiations with Iran as evidence supporting his approach.

He also offered an uncharacteristically emotional defense of why he hasn’t engaged the U.S. military more aggressively in conflicts such as Syria. Obama said he is “haunted” by the deaths of U.S. service members who were killed in Afghanistan after he ordered a surge of troops in 2009.

President’s Duty

An administration official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity after the speech said Obama is reviewing an option for the U.S. military to train moderate Syrian rebel groups outside the country.

Representative Ed Royce, a California Republican who is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Obama has offered “a series of foreign policy plans and visions” without taking strong action and without explaining the stakes to the American public.

“The result has been a general loss of U.S. credibility, making successful foreign policy nearly impossible,” he said in a statement. “The Obama administration has consistently underestimated the threats we face: Iran, North Korea, al-Qaeda, and others.”

In a tweet, Aaron David Miller, a former Mideast peace negotiator now at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, called it “a risk averse speech by a not so risk-ready president.”

Overdue Explanation

Several analysts said Obama’s effort to explain his foreign policy is overdue in a nation that polls show has grown weary of costly overseas entanglements.

“The president, unfortunately, has spent too much time responding and reacting to events in the world, as well as to the critics of how he’s handled his foreign policy, and he somewhat lost the thread of his own vision and what he thinks America should stand for,” Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, said before Obama spoke.

As the U.S. is set to end combat operations in Afghanistan this year and withdraw fully over the next two, Obama said the U.S. must shift its resources to confront the changing nature of terrorism.

“For the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America at home and abroad remains terrorism,” Obama said. “But a strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naïve and unsustainable.”

Drone Strikes

While defending the U.S. right to continue drone strikes such as those in Yemen and Somalia against terrorist targets, and to act unilaterally to protect the nation, Obama also said the U.S. must embrace two standards.

“We must not create more enemies than we take off the battlefield,” he said. And the U.S. must “be more transparent about both the basis for our actions, and the manner in which they are carried out.”

Obama said the military will increasingly take the lead in battling terrorism and informing the public about actions taken taken and the reasons.

The president touched only briefly on securing the nation from cyber attacks and about the national security threat posed by climate change. While he mentioned disputes between China and U.S. allies in the South China Sea, he made no reference to the Middle East or peace. He also reiterated his commitment to closing the detention center for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Obama announced yesterday that he’ll reduce the U.S. force in Afghanistan to 9,800 by the end of this year and have all the troops out by the time he leaves office in January, 2017. Next week, he travels to Europe with stops in Poland, where he’ll talk about the U.S. alliance with Europe, and in Brussels for a meeting with the Group of Seven nations, where Russia’s role in the unrest in Ukraine will be a topic.

To contact the reporters on this story: Phil Mattingly in West Point, New York at pmattingly@bloomberg.net; Margaret Talev in Washington at mtalev@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at skomarow1@bloomberg.net Joe Sobczyk

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