President Obama to West Point: 'America Has Rarely Been Stronger' Globally Than It Is Now

The president used a Wednesday commencement address to detail a new view of America's place in the world.

President Obama walks toward Marine One while departing the White House, on May 28, 2014 in Washington, DC. (National Journal)

President Obama outlined a foreign policy strategy at Wednesday's West Point commencement, just a day after presenting a framework for drawing down troops in Afghanistan before the end of his second term.

In the speech, Obama highlighted a shift away from the large-scale wars that he inherited from his predecessor, opting instead to move toward a strategy of supporting local militaries' fights against terrorism with funding, training, and equipment. To this end, Obama said Wednesday that he will ask Congress for a $5 billion Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund to "train, build capacity, and facilitate partner countries on the front lines."{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4976) }}

Even as he outlined a new direction for foreign engagement, Obama defended the policies of his first term and a half. He responded sharply to critics who have painted his foreign policy stance as weak, reasserting the U.S.'s role as global leader. "Here's my bottom line: America must always lead on the world stage," the president said. "If we don't, no one else will." And the president is bullish on where the U.S. currently stands: "In fact, by most measures, America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world."

But he distanced himself from the full-on military operations he oversaw in Afghanistan and Iraq, calling for a more concerted effort to engage with other countries in counterterrorism operations. "We must broaden our tools to include diplomacy and development; sanctions and isolation; appeals to international law and — if just, necessary, and effective — multilateral military action," Obama said. "We must do so because collective action in these circumstances is more likely to succeed, more likely to be sustained, and less likely to lead to costly mistakes."

Elements of this new strategy are already apparent in Afghanistan, Syria, and parts of Africa.

In Afghanistan, U.S. troop levels will be drawn down to 9,800 by the end of this year, when combat operations will end. In the following year, the remaining troops will train Afghan security forces and cooperate on counterterrorism operations. By the time Obama leaves office, the only American forces left in Afghanistan will be a small contingent guarding the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

The president also used the speech to announce increased support for the opposition in Syria, where U.S. involvement has been paltry since the beginning of the civil war more than three years ago. "We look at the Syria conflict as part of a broader counterterrorism challenge, and that is why we're going to continue increasing our support to the moderate opposition, who offer the best alternative to both the murderous Assad dictatorship and the extremists who have exploited the crisis," White House press secretary Jay Carney said before the speech.

In four African countries, these training programs have already begun. The New York Times reports that members of the American military have been training elite forces in Libya, Niger, Mauritania, and Mali since last year. The Pentagon is spending $70 million on these programs.

This strategy of smaller-scale engagement in many places at once makes sense, Obama said, because "today's principal threat no longer comes from a centralized al-Qaida leadership. Instead, it comes from decentralized al-Qaida affiliates and extremists, many with agendas focused in the countries where they operate." Obama's policy shift intends to reflect this new reality. "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."

Returning to diplomacy, President Obama touched on his administration's recent pressure on Russia and Iran. Touting the multilateral coalitions behind both, he said, "This is American leadership. This is American strength. In each case, we built coalitions to respond to a specific challenge." He stood up to "skeptics" who question the effectiveness of multilateral engagement: "I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being. But what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it's our willingness to affirm them through our actions."

The president ended on a hopeful note, seeking to frame his new foreign policy direction as a continuation of American leadership on the world stage. Leadership, he said, "requires us to see the world as it should be — a place where the aspirations of individual human beings matter; where hopes and not just fears govern; where the truths written into our founding documents can steer the currents of history in the direction of justice."