“When issues of global concern do not pose a direct threat to the United States, when such issues are at stake — when crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction but do not directly threaten us — then the threshold for military action must be higher.”
With that line, President Barack Obama explained his overlying foreign-policy doctrine and defended himself from critics who say he has been too passive in dealing with crises in Syria and Ukraine.
Obama’s foreign policy has always been about shifting heavily from his predecessor, George W. Bush, with respect to American military might. On Wednesday, he articulated that vision in a major speech to graduates at West Point, telling the cadets they would be the first class since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks who may not be sent into combat in Afghanistan or Iraq.
Obama argued for a pragmatic approach toward foreign policy that requires America to take a leading role using both military might and diplomatic tools like alliances and sanctions to achieve its objectives. Five and a half into his second term and with two wars begun under his predecessor coming to a near-end, Obama said the “landscape has changed.”
“A strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naïve and unsustainable,” Obama said. “I believe we must shift our counter-terrorism strategy — drawing on the successes and shortcomings of our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan — to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold.”
As part of his speech, Obama announced he is requesting approval from Congress on a new $US5 billion fund to help other countries fight terrorism. The main focus of this fund would be nations in the tumultuous regions of the Middle East and Africa.
Obama also announced he would continue to support the most moderate of the Syrian opposition, while defending himself from critics who blasted his decision to back off his threat of air strikes last September.
Obama cast the Syrian conflict, as he often has, as a false choice between the preferred “realist” method of isolationism and the “interventionist” argument that Obama’s approach is emboldening America’s enemies. Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona and one of the fiercest critics of Obama’s foreign policy, called this a “straw man” argument in a statement issued shortly after the West Point speech.
Here’s how Obama explained the problem in Syria, and how he thinks the U.S. should be involved to find a solution:
“As frustrating as it is, there are no easy answers there, no military solution that can eliminate the terrible suffering anytime soon. As president, I made a decision that we should not put American troops into the middle of this increasingly sectarian civil war, and I believe that is the right decision. But that does not mean we shouldn’t help the Syrian people stand up against a dictator who bombs and starves his own people. And in helping those who fight for the right of all Syrians to choose their own future, we are also pushing back against the growing number of extremists who find safe haven in the chaos.
“So with the additional resources I’m announcing today, we will step up our efforts to support Syria’s neighbours — Jordan and Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq — as they contend with refugees and confront terrorists working across Syria’s borders. I will work with Congress to ramp up support for those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists and brutal dictators.”
There were times at which the way he articulated his foreign policy vision contradicted itself. For example, he said the “most direct threat to America” remains terrorism. However, even as he pledged to offer more support for Syria’s neighbours in combating the regional militant groups and al Qaeda affiliates that have formed in the country, Obama again cast the Syrian crisis as one where America’s interests weren’t directly affected.
He also described his approach toward Russia in the midst of the Ukrainian crisis as a success. As part of this, though, he did not mention Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Obama said America’s early steps in levying multiple rounds of sanctions helped isolate Russia from the start. And this weekend, despite the constant threat of disruption, millions of Ukrainians turned out to vote and select their next president.
“We don’t know how the situation will play out, and there will remain grave challenges ahead, but standing with our allies on behalf of international order, working with international institutions, has given a chance for the Ukrainian people to choose their future — without us firing a shot.”
Those last five words — “without us firing a shot” — were not included in Obama’s prepared remarks.
Obama also mentioned the ongoing nuclear talks in Iran, portraying them as still a tall order but also a chance for something momentous. He said the coalition he helped form to impose sanctions had successfully avoided a military conflict, at least for now.
This is the example perhaps best suited to the Obama doctrine — a long, drawn out process that might lead to a diplomatic victory over a military one. And it’s one he will point to if negotiations are indeed successful among Iran and the six world powers.
“For the first time in a decade, we have a very real chance of achieving a breakthrough agreement, one that is more effective and durable than what we could have achieved through the use of force. And throughout these negotiations, it has been our willingness to work through multilateral channels that kept the world on our side,” Obama said. “The point is, this is American leadership. This is American strength.”
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