President Obama in a speech at West Point on Wednesday laid out his vision for a “new stage” in America's relations with the world post-Iraq and Afghanistan that allows more flexibility for the U.S. to respond to multiple threats around the globe.
Obama also announced a new $5 billion counter-terrorism partnership initiative to help other countries fight terrorism on their own turf.
When he first spoke at West Point in 2009, Obama said there were still 100,000 troops in Afghanistan and the United States was preparing for a surge in Afghanistan. The country's counter-terrorism efforts were focused on al Qaeda's core leadership, and the nation was just beginning a long climb out of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
“Four and a half years later, the landscape has changed,” he said.
The U.S. has removed its troops from Iraq, is winding down our war in Afghanistan, al Qaeda's leadership in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan “has been decimated and Osama bin Laden is no more.”
“In fact, by most measures, America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world,” he said.
Although he said isolationism is not an option in the 21st century, he stressed that "not every problem in the world has a military solution."
Addressing the graduating cadets directly, he said he is haunted by the deaths of servicemen in Iraq and Afghanistan and the wounds it caused.
"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," he said.
“Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail,” he added.
Obama credited the dedication of U.S. servicemen for providing Afghan forces the ability to protect their country and said the reduced troop presence there will allow the nation to more effectively address emerging threats in the Middle East and North Africa.
Reflecting his long-held interest in building international coalitions to take on the world's biggest foreign policy challenges, he said the United States has a leadership role to play to ensure that international institutions such as NATO, the United Nations and the World Bank evolve to meet modern-day demands.
“Skeptics often downplay the effectiveness of multilateral action,” he acknowledged. “For them, working through international institutions, or respecting international law, is a sign of weakness. I think they’re wrong.”
In making his case, he credited American leadership in working with Iran to roll back its nuclear program and helping isolate Russia after its incursion into Ukraine though he acknowledged “we don't know how the situation will play out.”
“This is American leadership,” he said. “This is American strength.”
As part of the continued effort to engage allies, Obama called on Congress to support a new $5 billion counter-terrorism partnerships fund, which he said would allow the U.S. to "train, build capacity, and facilitate partner countries on the front lines."
Those resources will be put to use to help train security forces in Yemen who are fighting al Qaeda, support a multinational force to keep peace in SoMalia, work with European allies to train a functioning force and border patrol in Libya and facilitate French operations in Mali.
Obama also used the speech to announce that the $5 billion proposed fund also will support Syria's neighbors -- Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq -- as they host Syrian refugees and "confront terrorists working across Syrian borders."
"I will work with Congress to ramp up support for those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists and a brutal dictator," he said.
"And we will continue to coordinate with our friends and allies in Europe and the Arab World — to push for a political resolution of this crisis, and make sure that those countries, and not just the United States, are contributing their fair share of support to the Syrian people."
The White House is weighing whether any of the funds will be used to expand training for the Syrian rebels. Administration officials reportedly are increasing alarmed about the proliferation of terrorist groups, including al Qaeda, inside Syria over the last year.
Right now the CIA is operating a narrow, covert training program for vetted members of the Syrian opposition, and administration officials are working with Congress to determine whether to step up those efforts and involve the U.S. military.
Obama so far has resisted calls to provide more training and lethal aide to Syrian rebels in the bloody civil war that has killed more than 120,000 people. Last year Obama opted against enforcing his red-line threat to Syria not to use chemical weapons and ultimately decided against military action in favor of trying to destroy President Bashir Assad's chemical stockpile.
The speech comes on the heels of Obama's 33-hour trip to and from Afghanistan. After the speech, he will visit Poland to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the end of the Cold War, Brussels for a Group of Seven summit with global allies, and Normandy, France, for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion that led to victory in World War II.
The timing, ahead of a pivotal mid-term election in Congress, seems odd for a foreign-policy push. But after Russia's incursion into Ukraine and new aggression from China, Obama's handling of foreign policy has taken a beating in the polls. Just 39% overall and 32% of independent voters approve of Obama's foreign policy performance, according tot he most recent Gallup survey.
Obama's international focus will no doubt be short-lived as the president and top Democrats try to rally the base in late summer months ahead of the fall election. Foreign policy rarely impacts elections, and polls consistently show it ranks as a low priority for Americans, well below the economy and other top domestic issues.