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Obama signals less direct military action for US in foreign policy shift

At commencement speech at West Point, president stresses consensus building, announces $5B fund for counterterrorism

President Barack Obama said Wednesday that America must “always lead on the world stage” but signaled a less direct role for the U.S. military overseas, instead stressing the imperative for consensus-building and providing tools for others to tackle the increasingly diffuse threat posed by terrorism worldwide.

Unilateral military force could be used “when our core interests demand it,” Obama said. “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.

“Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail,” he said.

Obama chose to deliver the most in-depth articulation of his foreign policy doctrine to date at commencement exercises for the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, which has historically been an occasion for foreign policy declarations. At the 2002 ceremony, then-President George W. Bush introduced his doctrine of preventive war as part of his post-9/11 war on terror. Within a year, he had invaded Iraq.

For Obama, Wednesday's speech was similarly timely. The president has come under growing pressure to defend what critics have called his “timid” or even isolationist approach to the world’s pressing conflicts, after being accused of waffling on threats of military intervention in Syria and having been outmaneuvered by Russia over the crisis in Ukraine.

In his speech, Obama instead sought to frame the new chapter in U.S. foreign policy as an evolution of the U.S. war on terror, a product both of U.S. success in dissolving much of Al-Qaeda’s central leadership structure and of the lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan. The president said the U.S. now faces a global threat that demands a more nuanced regimen of coalition building and aid to regional partners as they tackle Al-Qaeda offshoots, such as the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria.

“A strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naive and unsustainable,” Obama said, in an apparent jab at his predecessor’s embrace of preventive military action, which many believe has only served to embolden anti-American sentiment and further destabilize the Middle East. “We need a strategy that matches this diffuse threat; one that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military thin, or stir up local resentments.”

As part of that effort, he announced a $5 billion Counter-Terrorism Partnerships Fund for training and other assistance to partners in the Middle East and Africa as they deal with armed groups, such as Al-Qaeda-linked forces in Yemen.

Obama also confirmed previous reports that the U.S. would ramp up its training and support for moderate factions among Syria’s beleaguered rebels. He framed that decision, too, as a Goldilocks option between what he called a “brutal dictator” in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and “terrorists,” or the Al-Qaeda-inspired extremist factions that have flooded the country to fight him. The U.S. will be partnered with regional allies — namely, Jordan, Turkey and the Gulf countries — in that endeavor.

Since he took office in 2009, Obama has ended the war in Iraq and withdrawn the majority of troops from Afghanistan. “You are the first class to graduate since 9/11 who may not be sent into combat in Iraq or Afghanistan,” Obama told the class of 1,000 graduating cadets to a murmur of applause.

The last time Obama spoke at West Point, in 2009, he announced a 30,000-strong troop surge to Afghanistan. On Tuesday, he said no American boots would remain on the ground there past 2016, in a speech that served to formally wind down that 13-year war ahead of Wednesday’s much-anticipated speech.

But while recent polling has indicated rising support among the war-weary American public for the U.S. being “less active on the global stage,” Obama has nonetheless come under fire from both sides of the aisle for failing to articulate the middle-ground approach that continues controversial elements of the war on terror, like the use of drones, as it simultaneously scales back the U.S. military footprint.

Gary Sick, a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Middle East Institute, said the Obama doctrine was, in part, a natural response to more than a decade of unpopular wars that many feel have backfired by sharpening anti-U.S. sentiment. Sick likened the principles Obama laid out on Wednesday to “a rebirth of the Nixon doctrine,” which emphasized acting through proxies and regional allies to defend U.S. interests.

The Nixon doctrine, which was formulated amid another unpopular war, in Vietnam, sought to combat the expansion of the Soviet Union and the spread of communism in the 1960s without risking American lives. The modern-day fight against global terrorism “isn’t the same thing at all,” Sick said, “but it does involve the same principle, which is that we have willing partners on the other end and that we don’t have to do everything ourselves.”

That “leading from behind” approach — so coined by an Obama official in the context of the U.S.-supported NATO attack on Libya, in which French planes struck first — remains controversial. Since Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi fell from power, the country has in effect been run by militias and infiltrated by extremist groups. Meanwhile, a rogue general appears poised to stage a coup against the anemic central government, and the country looks to be heading toward civil war.

In Syria, many say the minimal assistance Obama has provided for moderate rebel groups, who are outnumbered by Islamist factions and Al-Qaeda-inspired radicals, has been inadequate to tip the balance of the three-year-old war and merely served to perpetuate the violence, which has killed more than 160,000 and displaced nearly 10 million.

It is unclear whether the additional aid announced Wednesday will do much more, and it certainly will not satisfy hawkish members of Congress who have called for a surgical strike on the regime.

The U.S. would strike only “when we face a continuing, imminent threat, and only where there is near certainty of no civilian casualties,” Obama said. “For our actions should meet a simple test: We must not create more enemies than we take off the battlefield.”

Obama’s speech was notable for what it did not say, too. The president made just one reference to cyberwarfare, which military analysts in a recent poll said was the foremost threat facing the U.S. And he made scant mention of Israel, a major U.S. partner in the Middle East but one that has proved obstinate in Secretary of State John Kerry’s fruitless efforts to broker a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Those talks broke down last month amid criticism that the U.S. was not willing to pressure its ally Israel to make the painful concessions required for progress.

Some might have expected the showdown with Russian President Vladimir Putin to get the same treatment, since the U.S. was widely perceived to have suffered an embarrassment when Russia turned a cheek to "red line" rhetoric from Obama and annexed Crimea by way of a Moscow-backed public referendum.

Instead, the president cited last weekend’s Ukrainian elections as a signal that U.S.-led “mobilization of world opinion and institutions” had given the Ukrainian people the opportunity to “choose their future.”

“Russia’s recent actions recall the days when Soviet tanks rolled into Eastern Europe,” Obama said. “But this isn’t the Cold War. Our ability to shape world opinion helped isolate Russia right away.”

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