Obama Seeks Foreign Policy Reset to Counter Doubts
(Corrects affiliation of David Barno in 17th paragraph of story published May 28.)
President Barack Obama plans to use his commencement address today at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, to present a foreign-policy vision that balances the nation’s commitments against the limits of American military, economic and political power.
That clarity has been lacking, according to critics at home and abroad, who cast the president as weak and ineffective.
Even some Obama supporters say the effort to explain his foreign policy is overdue in a nation that polls show has grown weary of costly overseas entanglements.
“The president, unfortunately, has spent too much time responding and reacting to events in the world, as well as to the critics of how he’s handled his foreign policy, and he somewhat lost the thread of his own vision and what he thinks America should stand for,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Washington policy organization. “So I think the stakes are pretty high.”
The speech comes as Obama faces international challenges with long-term consequences, including nuclear negotiations with Iran, a civil war in Syria that’s destabilizing its neighbors and fueling Islamic extremism, a Russian president seeking to destabilize Ukraine and divide Europe, and a Chinese government that’s flexing its military and economic muscle.
Republicans in Congress and some foreign leaders say Obama has weakened America’s standing in the world to a point that worries allies and emboldens rivals and foes.
“Obama clearly wants to say that he is not the world’s policeman, but he’s also not abdicating, he’s not an isolationist, that there’s a third way,” Ian Bremmer, president of the New York-based research firm Eurasia Group, said in a phone interview. “I’ve got to tell you, nobody understands what that third way is.”
Obama’s address will mark the start of an effort by the president and other administration officials to discuss a new phase of U.S. engagement abroad, according to an official who asked not to be identified to discuss the speech. Along with continuing the fight against al-Qaeda, Obama will discuss how the U.S. must play a leadership role in pushing for action on trade, climate change and other issues, the official said.
“It’s time to turn the page on more than a decade in which so much of our foreign policy was focused on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Obama said. “When I took office, we had nearly 180,000 troops in harm’s way. By the end of this year, we will have less than 10,000.”
“In addition to bringing our troops home, this new chapter in American foreign policy will allow us to redirect some of the resources saved by ending these wars to respond more nimbly to the changing threat of terrorism while addressing a broader set of priorities around the globe,” he said.
Obama will call for increasing counterterrorism funding to expand cooperative efforts with other nations as al-Qaeda offshoots have grown in the Mideast and Africa, according to a person briefed by White House officials who asked to remain anonymous because the speech hasn’t been released.
That move is an acknowledgment that, despite killing al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the threat of Islamic terrorism has metastasized, making it harder and costlier to counter. By saying the Syrian conflict is fueling al-Qaeda-linked terrorist groups, Obama may provide a rationale to expand now-modest U.S. covert military aid to moderate Syrian rebel factions.
In advance of his speech, Obama yesterday announced that all U.S. troops will leave Afghanistan by the end of 2016. He said he plans to reduce the force to 9,800 from the 32,000 American military personnel posted there now and devote them to “two narrow missions” -- training and counterterrorism -- by the end of this year.
If Afghanistan’s next president signs a pending security agreement, Obama said, he’ll cut that number by roughly half by the end of 2015 before completing the withdrawal before he leaves office.
That decision, which the president said is consistent with his pledge to end the wars started by President George W. Bush responsibly, may complicate his message of American engagement.
Retired Army Lieutenant General David Barno, who commanded U.S. troops in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, called Obama’s decision “mixed news at best.”
“While the number for next year seems about right, the publicly announced speedy departure plan for those troops will now unquestionably sow doubt among American friends and Afghan supporters,” Barno wrote on the website of the Center for a New American Security. “At the same time, this withdrawal timeline will tacitly encourage resilient Taliban and al-Qaeda factions that are seeking a long-term victory.”
Obama’s “decision on Afghanistan will fuel the growing perception worldwide that America is unreliable, distracted, and unwilling to lead,” the president’s three leading Senate critics -- Republicans John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire -- said in a joint statement yesterday.
While Obama has accused critics such as McCain of being too willing to call for U.S. military involvement in places such as Syria, other officials say they worry about polls reporting that Americans are eager to pull back from foreign commitments. Those polls and the president’s approach have led allies in the Mideast and Asia to worry about whether the U.S. will honor its defense commitments.
“What we are facing is not so much war-weariness as world-weariness and a sense of ‘why are we taking on these responsibilities,’” said Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, another Washington policy organization.
“It’s been a long time since anyone has tried to explain to the American people why the U.S. plays this role in the world,” Kagan said yesterday at a Brookings panel on U.S. leadership. “I sort of hope President Obama does that.”
Obama has tried before to make his case for American engagement without overreach. Even so, his approach can seem haphazard when he acted militarily to aid Libyan rebels against leader Muammar Qaddafi while balking at enforcing his own “red line” against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons.
Nor, aside from killing bin Laden, does Obama have a series of foreign policy victories to support his case. China and Russia have become more assertive and less responsive to international norms; Iraq has grown more violent and less stable since the withdrawal of U.S. troops; and Afghanistan’s future is uncertain, at best, as America heads for the exits.
“We have to recognize Afghanistan will not be a perfect place, and it is not America’s responsibility to make it one,” Obama said yesterday in Rose Garden remarks. “The future of Afghanistan must be decided by Afghans.”
That captures an element of Obama’s broader viewpoint as he reshapes U.S. policy, said Bremmer.
“You could insert any country or issue in the world instead of Afghanistan, and that would be Obama’s perspective,” he said. “But at the same time, he said we are committed to our allies and we’re not going to let our allies down, and we’re committed to fighting al-Qaeda and fighting terror.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Terry Atlas in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Walcott at email@example.com Elizabeth Wasserman, Craig Gordon