NEW YORK - President Barack Obama on Wednesday argued for a new American foreign policy that prizes diplomacy and multilateralism over the overreaching use of military force.
The speech at the US Military Academy in West Point, New York, among the president's most comprehensive foreign policy addresses of his time in office, comes amid criticism that his reluctance to order military interventions has weakened the influence of the United States around the globe. In his hour-long address, he made no reference to Tuesday's historic meeting between leaders of India and Pakistan in New Delhi.
A day after announcing that the last American soldier would leave Afghanistan at the end of 2016, the president told this latest class of Army officers that the United States faced a new, more diffuse threat in an arc of militancy stretching from the Middle East to the African Sahel. Obama singled out Syria, which he said had become a dangerous haven for terrorists, some linked to Al Qaeda. While pledging to strengthen American support for the opposition, he did not discuss expanding the C.I.A.'s covert training programme for the rebels by bringing in the military, which is being debated inside the administration.
The president did announce a counterterrorism partnership, funded with up to $5 billion, to help train countries in the Middle East and Africa to carry out operations against extremists. “Today’s principal threat no longer comes from a centralized Al Qaeda leadership,” Obama said. “Instead, it comes from decentralized Al Qaeda affiliates and extremists, many with agendas focused in the countries where they operate.”Responding to his critics, he said the US “has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world” and cannot relinquish its leadership on the world stage.
Asserting that “isolationism is not an option,” the president sought to frame a strategy for confronting the threats of a changing battleground, with a stepped-up focus on combating terrorism. It is a strategy of military restraint and yet a resolve to act when necessary, while refraining from engagements that threaten to “create more enemies than we take off the battlefield” - an implicit lesson of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Just because we have the best hammer,” the president told the newest class of Army officers, “does not mean that every problem is a nail.” “We don’t have a choice to ignore what happens beyond our borders,” Obama said on the question of isolationism. “We cannot ignore what happens beyond our boundaries.”
“Those who argue otherwise - who suggest that America is in decline, or has seen its global leadership slip away - are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics,” Obama said in his address. “Think about it. Our military has no peer. The odds of a direct threat against us by any nation are low, and do not come close to the dangers we faced during the Cold War.”
“It is absolutely true that in the 21st Century, American isolationism is not an option,” Obama said. “If nuclear materials are not secure, that could pose a danger in American citizens. As the Syrian civil war spills across borders, the capacity of battle-hardened groups to come after us increases. Regional aggression that goes unchecked - in southern Ukraine, the South China Sea, or anywhere else in the world - will ultimately impact our allies, and could draw in our military.”
“But 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 often draws headlines, but war rarely conforms to slogans. ”
“Here’s my bottom line: America must always lead on the world stage. If we don’t, no one else will. The military that you have joined is, and always will be, the backbone of that leadership. But US military action cannot be the only - or even primary - component of our leadership in every instance.”
As the administration this week announced a timetable for the final draw-down of troops from Afghanistan - exiting by the end of 2016 - the president devoted his appearance today to a focus on national security policy going forward.
“We know all too well, after 9/11, just how technology and globalization has put power once reserved for states in the hands of individuals, raising the capacity of terrorists to do harm,” the president said. “Russia’s aggression toward former Soviet states unnerves capitals in Europe, while China’s economic rise and military reach worries its neighbours.”
“It is a particularly useful time for America to reflect on those who have sacrificed so much for our freedom - for you are the first class to graduate since 9/11 who may not be sent into combat in Iraq or Afghanistan,” Obama told the West Point graduating class. “When I first spoke at West Point in 2009, we still had more than 100,000 troops in Iraq. We were preparing to surge in Afghanistan. Our counter-terrorism efforts were focused on al Qaeda’s core leadership.”
“Four and a half years later, the landscape has changed,” he said. “We have removed our troops from Iraq. We are winding down our war in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda’s leadership in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been decimated, and Osama bin Laden is no more.”
“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. 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.”