Obama Offers a Muscular, but Not Militaristic, Foreign Policy

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from The New York Times,

President Obama on Wednesday tried to regain his statesman’s mantle, telling graduating cadets here that the nation they were being commissioned to serve would still lead the world and would not stumble into military misadventures overseas.

Speaking under leaden, chilly skies, Mr. Obama delivered the commencement address at the United States Military Academy.

“America must always lead on the world stage,” he said. “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.”

Under pressure from critics who say the United States has been rudderless amid a cascade of crises, the president said that those who “suggest that America is in decline, or has seen its global leadership slip away – are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics.”

A day after announcing that the last American soldier would leave Afghanistan at the end of 2016, the president told this latest class of Army officers that the United States faced a new, more diffuse threat in an arc of militancy stretching from the Middle East to the African Sahel.

Mr. Obama singled out Syria, which he said had become a dangerous haven for terrorists, some linked to Al Qaeda. While pledging to strengthen American support for the opposition, he did not discuss expanding the C.I.A.’s covert training program for the rebels by bringing in the military, which is being debated inside the administration.

The president did announce a counterterrorism partnership, funded with up to $5 billion, to help train countries in the Middle East and Africa to carry out operations against extremists.

“Today’s principal threat no longer comes from a centralized Al Qaeda leadership,” Mr. Obama said. “Instead, it comes from decentralized Al Qaeda affiliates and extremists, many with agendas focused in the countries where they operate.”

Mr. Obama’s speech, which was weeks in the drafting, was a wide-ranging rebuttal to critics who say he has yielded American leadership in a world tossed by storms, from Syria’s civil war to Russia’s incursions in Ukraine.

But it was also meant to reject arguments that the United States should retreat from its post-World War II centrality in global affairs. Mr. Obama instead called for a middle course between isolationism and overreach, citing the international coalition he had mobilized to counter Russia’s aggression in Ukraine as an example of how to use American muscle without putting its soldiers at risk.

Mr. Obama has been deeply frustrated by the criticism of his foreign policy, which during his first term was generally perceived as his strong suit. He has lashed out at critics, whom he accuses of reflexively calling for military action as the remedy for every crisis.

On a trip to Asia last month, Mr. Obama described his foreign policy credo with a baseball analogy: “You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run.” But, he added, the overriding objective is to avoid an error on the order of the Iraq war.

In the speech, Mr. Obama described an array of priorities, ranging from the Iran nuclear negotiations to a new global climate change accord, which he said would occupy his final two-and-a-half years in office.

He also spoke of the need for the United States to look eastward to Asia, promoting his long efforts to negotiate a trans-Pacific trade agreement and pledging to defend American allies in the region in their territorial disputes with China in the South and East China Seas.

He said the United States had successfully isolated President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

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