President Obama told a crowd of cadets at West Point that the United States remains an "indispensable nation" that will face down terrorism threats around the world and work to bolster key allies while avoiding costly, open-ended wars. But amid Republican criticism that Obama has diminished America's standing globally, the high-profile address likely handed his opponents new support for their claim that he's more interested in a domestic agenda than one in which he'd be willing to intervene in a place like Syria, now in the third year of a bloody civil war.
Obama, speaking at the U.S. Military Academy's commencement ceremony today, said terrorism remains "the most direct threat to America at home and abroad" and stressed that the United States won't refrain from taking direct action against militants if it has actionable intelligence. He also announced a new $5 billion counterterrorism fund conceived to help the United States train allies in the Middle East and North Africa so they could battle their own homegrown extremists with little to no U.S. help. Administration officials pointed to Africa, where the military has ramped up its efforts to help the militaries of countries like Mali, Chad, and Niger.
Obama, considered by many of his critics to be a reluctant wartime president, also took pains to lower any expectation that the U.S. military should or would be America's primary tool for fixing whatever ails the world.
"The military that you have joined is, and always will be, the backbone of that leadership," Obama told the graduating cadets at West Point. "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."
The president's remarks came just one day after he announced a new plan for Afghanistan in which some 9,800 troops would remain in that country after 2014 to train the Afghan security forces and mount counterterror operations, but with all but a handful of security forces supporting the embassy withdrawing by the end of 2015.
Although there has been speculation for weeks that the White House would expand its program to train and arm the Syrian opposition, and perhaps Obama would use Wednesday's speech to outline it, Obama was decidedly noncommittal. The administration has long stressed that the U.S. military wouldn't intervene in the conflict and that it was committed to a diplomatic solution to the brutal civil war. Those efforts have collapsed in recent weeks, but Obama didn't acknowledge that diplomacy was no longer making any progress and offered only broad brushstrokes about what the United States would do to help.
"As frustrating as it is, there are no easy answers -- no military solution that can eliminate the terrible suffering anytime soon," Obama said of Syria. "As president, I made a decision that we should not put American troops into the middle of this increasingly sectarian civil war, and I believe that is the right decision."
A senior administration official briefing reporters after the speech had few other details, putting the responsibility for authorizing such assistance on Congress' doorstep and hinting that it could be several more months before Syrian rebels see any new assistance. Asked if the White House had settled on a plan to assist Syrian rebels, the official hinted that it had not.
"This is something we'll be discussing with Congress in the coming weeks and months," the official said.
Some of the details that did emerge during the speech also undercut some of the president's own arguments. Some of the money in the proposed new counterterrorism fund would help pay for humanitarian assistance in Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan, all of which have seen the spillover effects of the Syrian war in the form of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. That could reduce, perhaps substantially, the amount of money that would go towards training and equipping allied armed forces.
Typical of Obama's vision of the use of military forces to "build capacity" among partner nations is a plan underway since last year in which U.S. Special Operations troops are creating elite counterterrorism units in North and West Africa, including Libya, Niger, Mali, and Mauritania. The program, first reported by the New York Times this week, uses the Army's Green Berets and the secretive Delta Force to help create indigenous forces capable of fighting militants in those countries such as those from Boko Haram, an Islamist group that kidnapped about 275 schoolgirls in a remote region of northern Nigeria.
"I believe we must shift our counterterrorism strategy -- drawing on the successes and shortcomings of our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan -- to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold," Obama said, noting how such moves are a reflection of today's "principal threat," which comes from a decentralized al Qaeda in which the group's affiliates and other extremists pose the biggest threats in those countries.
"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."
Obama also committed, once again, to providing more transparency about the military operations he oversees, echoing comments he made more than a year ago at National Defense University in which he argued for more openness in terms of America's targeted killings of militants abroad. But little of that effort has come to pass.
As Foreign Policy first reported in November, the expected migration of most drone operations from the CIA to the Defense Department has been on hold for months and is still not expected to happen anytime soon. CIA operations fall under what's known as "Title 50" operations and are therefore covert; Defense Department drone operations are, for the most part, overt and therefore subject to more Congressional oversight.
Obama's reinvigorated efforts to have more operations overseas out in the open come as Sen. Rand Paul, the Republican from Kentucky, threatened to hold up the judicial nomination of David Barron, who wrote a legal opinion in support of the Obama White House's killing of American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen in 2011. Barron was ultimately confirmed on a party-line 53-45.
Obama has also failed thus far to make significant headway in closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, an objective from his first days in office and reiterated during that speech last year.
Still, as criticism mounts of his foreign policy approach, Obama said he has every intention of shining as much sunlight on those operations as possible.
"I also believe we be more transparent about both the basis for our actions, and the manner in which they are carried out -- whether it is drone strikes, or training partners," he said Wednesday. "I will increasingly turn to our military to take the lead and provide information to the public about our efforts."