WEST POINT, N.Y. — President Obama on Wednesday defended his actions on national security and offered something of a reboot of his foreign policy in an attempt to define America’s role as the war in Afghanistan comes to a close and he looks to the final years of his presidency.
Responding directly to detractors who argue that he has surrendered American leadership, the president said that with Iraq and Afghanistan behind it, the U.S. is firmly positioned to deal with new threats.
“By most measures, America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world. Those who argue otherwise — who suggest that America is in decline or has seen its global leadership slip away — are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics,” the president said in a speech to the graduating class at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
“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,” Mr. Obama said.
Despite the strong words, some critics and analysts say the president lacks a guiding doctrine on foreign policy, leaving the rest of the world guessing about U.S. interests and when they might count on American action.
“I think what was interesting about this speech is that it was a methodological speech: how we’re going to work on various problems. But it didn’t go very far in defining what the challenges are,” said Blaise Misztal, director of the Foreign Policy Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “The crises and the challenges are so widespread, from Ukraine to Syria to coups in Thailand, I would’ve liked to see some attempt to encapsulate that. But instead we got this focus on the methodology.”
Mr. Obama did say the U.S. will offer more assistance to rebels battling Syrian President Bashar Assad, chided Russia for meddling in Ukraine’s affairs and promised to battle terrorists in the Middle East, North Africa and elsewhere.
He also defended his decision, announced Tuesday, to leave a residual force of 9,800 troops in Afghanistan until the end of 2015, at which point all U.S. forces will exit.
Republicans said the president should have aided Syrian rebels months ago, when toppling the Assad regime was a relatively easier task.
On Ukraine, they argue that Mr. Obama hasn’t been tough enough on Russian President Vladimir Putin and should have pursued harsher economic sanctions.
More broadly, critics say the president is too wedded to his “enlightened” foreign policy, taking a cautious, more academic approach to world affairs rather than acting forcefully and decisively.
“The president appears to believe that we, the American people, don’t understand how deft his policies of hitting singles and doubles is,” Rep. Mac Thornberry, Texas Republican and vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Wednesday in a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
“His speech at West Point today is another stop in his campaign to educate us about how enlightened his national security priorities truly are — to give us a greater appreciation of his more sophisticated maneuvering on our behalf,” Mr. Thornberry said.
The White House rejects those accusations, and the president sought to dispel the notion that he is weak on foreign policy by laying out specific steps the administration will take in the coming months and years.
In addition to his comments on Syria and Afghanistan, the president called on Congress to support a $5 billion Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund designed to help the U.S. train security forces in Yemen, support anti-terrorism forces in Somalia, work with France and other European allies to patrol the Libyan borders, aid the French in military operations in Mali and other objectives.
He also said the U.S. will “step up” joint efforts with Jordan, Lebanon and other nations dealing with a flood of refugees streaming across the Syrian border to escape that nation’s bloody civil war.
But he was quick to point out that the partnerships don’t mean the U.S. will abandon its leadership role or refuse to use military force when truly necessary.
“The partnerships I’ve described do not eliminate the need to take direct action when necessary to protect ourselves. When we have actionable intelligence, that’s what we do,” Mr. Obama said. “There are times when those actions are necessary, and we cannot hesitate to protect our people.”
Mr. Obama also told the graduating cadets at West Point that they will be the first class to graduate since Sept. 11, 2001, that may not be sent into combat in Iraq or Afghanistan. He touted the fact that he ended the Iraq War, approved a mission to kill al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and negotiated a deal to slow Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
But those “self-congratulatory” words, some analysts say, simply underscore that the president has not outlined a true vision for the future.
“This was a highly defensive speech, one that will do little to allay growing concern, both at home and abroad, that American leadership is in decline on the world stage,” said Nile Gardiner, director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation. “President Obama failed to outline a coherent strategy for meeting the biggest foreign policy challenges of the day, from mounting Russian aggression in Eastern Europe to the looming threat of a nuclear-armed Iran. The speech was short on policy but big on platitudes and self-congratulatory statements.”
• Ben Wolfgang reported from Washington.