The foreign military interventionism stemming from the Bush years will soon be over. But the future need not swing completely the other way toward isolationism, Obama said in a speech Wednesday.
He sketched out three different types of conflicts, and the appropriate U.S. responses: America will fight and it won't seek the world's permission when its own safety is at risk, Obama said. It may fight, but only with the support of allies, when outrages occur abroad and the world seeks American help. And sometimes, he said, the world's most powerful military will simply sit out other people's battles.
"Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail," Obama said in a speech to graduating military officers at West Point, N.Y., stressing that diplomacy and development are often better substitutes for raw power.
"I would betray my duty to you, and to the country we love, if I sent you into harm's way simply because I saw a problem somewhere in the world that needed fixing, or because I was worried about critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak.''
The speech attempted to build a coherent narrative from the chaos of recent world events. A damning editorial in the Washington Post this week said the results of his foreign policy choices had been consistently bad — with al-Qaida regaining power in Iraq, Libya deteriorating, Syria becoming a terrorist haven, and Ukraine getting carved up by Russia.
Now, as his presidency shifts into its final quarter, Obama is looking to narrate his own legacy.
Given the advance billing the White House gave this speech, it's clearly eager to add a foreign-policy line to the political epitaph, alongside health-care reform and climate change: that this 44th president, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in his first year in office to the expressed bafflement of many people including himself, did eventually pull the U.S. out of two wars that killed more than 6,000 Americans and drained the treasury of up to US$6 trillion.
The timing of Wednesday's speech spoke volumes. It came one day after Obama announced the end of the Afghan conflict, with a complete pullout set for late 2016 — in an unofficial bookend to the Bush-era wars.
A former Bush adviser reacted scathingly Wednesday. Writing for the Washington Post, Elliott Abrams said the president painted a cartoonish portrait of his opponents' worldview, while taking credit for some of Bush's successes — such as sanctions in Iran, and past AIDS initiatives in Africa.
He suggested that Obama's new Syria policy, for instance, comes from the very hawks he ignored for two years and continues to malign. Obama included an announcement on that country's civil war as one of several news tidbits in the speech.
Obama said he will:
— Consult Congress to ramp up support for the moderate Syrian opposition. The White House says it's considering a new project to train and equip members of the Free Syrian Army on tactics, including counterterrorism.
— Ask Congress to create a new counterterrorism partnerships fund of up to US$5 billion to train countries struggling on the "front line" against terrorism.
— Add transparency in the use of drone strikes, which he said should be launched only with the "near-certainty" of no civilian casualties. He said the U.S. needs to be able to explain such strikes publicly, and he promised to instruct the military to provide more information about them.
Obama also extolled the ongoing, unrivalled power of the U.S. military — which still has a larger budget than the next 10 countries combined.
That description of American military might came in one of the more upbeat passages of his speech, toward the end.
"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," Obama said.
"The values of our founding inspire leaders in parliaments and new movements in public squares around the globe. And when a typhoon hits the Philippines, or schoolgirls are kidnapped in Nigeria, or masked men occupy a building in Ukraine, it is America that the world looks to for help. So the United States is and remains the one indispensable nation. That has been true for the century past, and it will be true for the century to come."
But the overall tone was reflected more accurately earlier in his speech, when he quoted one of his predecessors.
"Since World War Two, 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," he said.
"Tough talk often draws headlines, but war rarely conforms to slogans. As General (Dwight) Eisenhower, someone with hard-earned knowledge on this subject, said at this ceremony in 1947, 'War is mankind's most tragic and stupid folly; to seek or advise its deliberate provocation is a black crime against all men.' "
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