President Barack Obama fought back against critics of his foreign policy on Wednesday by insisting U.S. reliance on diplomacy over military intervention was working to resolve global crises like Ukraine and Iran, and he pledged to ramp up support for Syria's opposition.
In the commencement address at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, Obama laid out his approach to foreign affairs for the rest of his presidency built on a commitment to act in concert with other nations, and he shifted the fight against terrorism from Afghanistan to more diffuse threats globally.
Obama, stung by unrelenting criticism that he has been passive and indecisive as a world leader, spent a large section of his address countering Republicans in Congress and foreign policy experts in Washington who argue for a more aggressive approach to crises from Ukraine to Syria.
He cast himself as striking a middle ground between war mongers and isolationists.
"Tough talk often draws headlines, but war rarely conforms to slogans," he said. America must lead on the world stage 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,” he said.
The vision he set out reflected a president determined to avoid a repeat of what he considers a mistaken war in Iraq and to end the conflict in Afghanistan, where the United States sent troops following the Sept. 11, 2001 hijacked-plane attacks. But he likely did little to silence critics who feel he is setting aside a global role traditionally filled by robust American policies.
Republican Senator John McCain, whom Obama defeated in the 2008 election, accused the president of "posturing as the voice of reason between extremes," and suggesting that to oppose his policies is to support the unilateral use of military force everywhere. "Literally no one is proposing that, and it is intellectually dishonest to suggest so," he said.
Obama announced a $5 billion proposal to serve as a “partnership fund” to help countries fight terrorism on their soil. The White House said Obama would work with Congress to find the money for the program in the tight federal budget.
The funds would train and equip other countries to fight "violent extremism and terrorist ideology."
Obama’s refusal to use military action against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for use of chemical weapons last year, after he had threatened to do, hurt his image among allies such as Saudi Arabia.
Obama, however, says his threats paid off with an international deal to secure and eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles.
He said he will work with Congress to "ramp up support for those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists and brutal dictators," but he offered no specifics.
Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq will also get additional resources to help house Syrian refugees. That money will come from the new fund, a senior administration official said.
"As frustrating as it is, there are no easy answers, no military solution that can eliminate the terrible suffering anytime soon," Obama said about Syria.
The Syrian Opposition Coalition welcomed Obama's promise. "The Syrian people and the opposition forces stand committed to work with their friends and to expand strategic cooperation in countering the terrorism enabled by the Assad regime in Syria," it said in a statement.
Leadership and caveats
Obama pointed to progress toward persuading Iran to give up nuclear weapons as a solid dividend of his multilateral diplomacy. And he said the firm stance by the United States and its European allies has been pivotal in persuading Russia to halt its advances on Ukraine after Moscow’s seizure of Crimea.
“This is American leadership. This is American strength. In each case, we built coalitions to respond to a specific challenge,” he said.
But here too there are caveats. On Iran, Obama acknowledged odds for success are still long and it is yet to be seen how Russian President Vladimir Putin will react to Ukraine’s latest crackdown on pro-Russian separatists in the east.
"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," he said.
The president also pledged that the United States would be a leader in forming an international agreement next year on measures to combat global warming and condemned Republicans who question whether climate change is real.
Obama critics were unmoved. "Across the spectrum, there is concern that under Barack Obama, America is in withdrawal mode," said Representative Mac Thornberry, a senior Republican on the House Armed Services Committee.
“Even a president with rhetorical gifts cannot finesse his way out of military weakness or the loss of credibility in the world,” Thornberry said in a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington.
Some in Obama's audience at West Point were also non-plussed. "He was too wishy-washy," said John Dodson, a 1968 West Point graduate. "When you’re not perceived to be strong and vigorous all your enemies are more willing to take chances."