Obama on the South Lawn of the White House on Wednesday. (Reuters)
Washington, May 29: As President Barack Obama listens to assessments of his foreign policy these days, he grows deeply frustrated. Syria? Ukraine? Afghanistan? What more do his critics want him to do? Get into another war? Keep fighting one that has already become America’s longest?
After more than five years in office, Obama has become increasingly convinced that while the United States must play a vital role beyond its borders, it should avoid getting dragged into the quicksand of international crises that have trapped some of his predecessors. It is time for an end to what he called “a long season of war”.
To his critics, mainly on the right but also some on the left, this is a prescription for passivity, an abrogation of decades of bipartisan leadership on the world stage. Stung and irritated, Obama used his commencement address to West Point cadets yesterday to mount a sustained rebuttal and to define an approach to foreign policy he believes is suited to a new era and he hopes will outlast his presidency.
“This is an attempt to come up with an Obama doctrine that looks at how do we think about the world now that the war against the Taliban and its allies is won,” said Peter L. Bergen, a national security scholar at the New America Foundation and one of several foreign policy specialists invited to lunch with Obama this week.
“A policy of judicious restraint is not very stirring and doesn’t lend itself to strong rhetoric, but it may be the most sensible approach and is certainly where the American public is.”
Obama framed the debate on his own terms at West Point, presenting himself as the steward of a reasonable balance between isolationism and unilateralism. He tried, as he often does, to capture a middle ground of sorts. He even played to both sides with his language, using the phrases “indispensable nation,” a favourite of Democrats during the Clinton administration, and “American exceptionalism,” a favourite of Republicans ever since.
By pulling troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2016, much as he already has done in Iraq, he noted that he will have ended America’s involvement in two wars. By training and equipping regional allies, he is increasingly turning the war with terrorists over to them.
In the future, when the United States is not directly threatened, “the threshold for military action must be higher,” Obama said. He presented the choice in binary terms, suggesting that his critics want to use force to solve many of the world’s troubles.
In some ways, that was a straw-man argument, since even his fiercest opponents do not advocate American ground forces to counter Russian intervention in Ukraine or to stop the civil war in Syria. But some critics say Obama seems to have grown more allergic to American power since his own intervention in Libya yielded a messy outcome.
At West Point, Obama noted that four cadets who were in the audience for his first address there in December 2009 when he announced a troop buildup in Afghanistan were subsequently killed in the war, and others were injured. “I believe America’s security demanded those deployments,” he said. “But I am haunted by those deaths. I am haunted by those wounds.”
R. Nicholas Burns, who was under secretary of state for George Bush, was more impressed, calling the speech “sincere and well said.”