Almost exactly a year after declaring the “War on Terror” as over, President Barack Obama spoke at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point to unveil an even broader new approach to fighting the threats abroad for which he has faced venomous criticism at home.
The president covered a massive swath of ground in the roughly 45-minute speech, claiming credit for stopping Russia from invading Ukraine, defeating al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan and calling on international allies and organizations such as NATO and the IMF to foot their share of the bill. The few specific plans Obama announced rely heavily on support in Congress, including the creation of a multibillion dollar international fund to combat terrorism and to bolster support for the increasingly fractioned militant opposition in Syria.
Obama spent the bulk of his address trying to explain his choices for U.S. action – and perhaps more importantly, inaction – to a sea of critics who blame the White House for trying to do everything and appeal to everyone, yet with nothing to show for it.
His commencement address to the West Point class of 2014 allowed the former law school professor to expand on his Tuesday announcement that a force would remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014, but would recede to zero within two years. Indeed, he told the class of Rhodes Scholars, athletes and the first ever all-female command team that they would likely be the first in more than a decade who will not be sent into combat in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Following broad critiques of what some consider a lack of American leadership around the globe, Obama offered a detailed vision of the future of U.S. foreign policy, as the administration completes protracted wars in the Middle East and desperately tries to avoid another one there or elsewhere.
"To say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution," he said. "Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint, but from our willingness to rush into military adventures – without thinking through the consequences; without building international support and legitimacy for our action, or leveling with the American people about the sacrifice required.
"Tough talk draws headlines, but war rarely conforms to slogans."
Despite the wide range of topics the president covered, there emerged still no clear plan for what comes next.
“Given the way [the Obama administration] talked about the speech beforehand, I thought there would be a clearer drive than to say, ‘Please understand me,’” says Jon Alterman, a former member of the policy planning staff at the U.S. State Department, where he also worked for the undersecretary for Near Eastern affairs.
The speech became “a Christmas tree” where all facets of the administration tried to hang their inputs and plans on any branch they could find, says Alterman, now director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“The complaint is that the White House is indecisive and slow-moving, and has a default toward passivity in a world where many trends are going in the wrong direction,” he says. "What I saw was a broad effort to explain the underlying theory behind the action and inaction."
Obama announced Wednesday he would ask Congress to support the creation of a “Counter-Terrorism Partnership Fund,” that would supply as much as $5 billion to “train, build capacity, and facilitate partnerships on the front lines.” This could be applied to fighting al-Qaida in Yemen, where it continues to gain footholds and be targeted by U.S. drone strikes.
The president also called on Congress to increase support for the opposition in Syria, which has been largely overshadowed and overwhelmed by a growing Islamic insurgency that now operates with impunity within the Levant nation.
“We will step up our efforts to support Syria’s neighbors – Jordan and Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq – as they host refugees, and confront terrorists working across Syrian border,” he said. “I will work with Congress to ramp up support for those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists and a brutal dictator.”
Congress, specifically the Senate, must also ratify the United Nations’ Law of the Sea Convention, governing the use of the world’s oceans, Obama said, so the U.S. would not to appear hypocritical in scolding China for it’s increasingly expeditionary navy.
“Here’s my bottom line,” he said, “America must always lead on the world’s stage. If we don’t, no one else will.”
That’s precisely what the president’s main critics have blasted him for, including vitriolic members of Congress who say even Wednesday’s announcement is too little, too late.
“The Obama Administration has consistently underestimated the threats we face: Iran, North Korea, al-Qaida and others," said Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in a release. "In many corners of the globe, the world is growing more unstable, with a tide of militancy facing the U.S. and our allies. If these challenges are to be met, the president must explain the high stakes to the American people, which demands more than a yearly speech.”