Obama taking on foreign policy critics

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The White House is mounting a concerted defense of President Obama’s foreign policy against criticism that he has weakened U.S. influence around the globe.

The full-court press hinges on a speech Obama will give Wednesday at West Point’s commencement, where aides say the commander in chief will argue that the U.S. can continue to exert meaningful influence through diplomacy and multilateralism.

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The push appears motivated in part by the president’s personal frustration with hawkish critics of his foreign policy, who argue he has eroded American power and left a leadership vacuum filled by rivals such as Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The criticism has centered on Syria, where the administration has been unable to slow civilian deaths in a brutal civil war, and Ukraine, where the administration watched as Putin and Russia took over the region of Crimea.

It also encompasses an Asian pivot that critics say has yet to take hold. A deal last week in which Russia agreed to supply natural gas to China reinforced arguments that Obama is being outpaced by events.

Obama and his aides have openly bristled at criticisms that he is not leading on foreign policy, and the president on Tuesday pointedly said it is harder to end a war than begin one in announcing all U.S. troops will leave Afghanistan by the end of 2016.

Aides argue the White House is at a “turning point” given the approaching end of the war in Afghanistan. Still, they acknowledge difficulties in presenting a cohesive foreign policy doctrine.

“What we want to do is step back and put all of these different events into the context of how does America lead in the world and how do we strike that balance between not getting overextended as we were in Iraq but ensuring that we are leading coalitions of nations, leading the international community on different issues,” deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said on Sunday.

A White House official said the administration has often been stuck reacting to events.

“Over the last 6 to 9 months, we’ve had to respond to a series of big events rather than talking about our overarching policy,” the official said.

The White House clearly wants to shift the narrative that its foreign policy is failing.

Obama made a surprise visit to Afghanistan over the Memorial Day weekend, and invited foreign policy columnists and journalists to the White House on Tuesday for a discussion. In the coming days, Cabinet members will fan out across Capitol Hill to bolster the White House’s arguments.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Secretary of State John Kerry, national security adviser Susan Rice, United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power and Assistant to the President Lisa Monaco will “take on pieces of the agenda and engage the debate over foreign policy with an affirmative U.S. case,” the White House official said.

Obama told reporters Tuesday he would use the West Point speech to explain how the U.S. could “begin a new chapter in the story of American leadership around the world.”

The president will also outline how his administration is adapting to the changing threats posed by global terror networks, and how the U.S. plans to meet emerging challenges like climate change and maritime trade issues.

But the speech at West Point is only one “bite at the apple,” the White House official said.

After West Point, Obama will travel to Europe next week to meet with leaders on Ukraine. He’ll also attend ceremonies commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Normandy invasion, where Putin will also be present.

One Democratic official suggested the early-summer focus on foreign policy could clear the decks for the president to fully engage in his midterm push. The White House has already begun scheduling a series of summertime events focused on Obama’s economic agenda, and the president is set to maintain his breakneck fundraising pace.

Repairing the president’s standing on foreign policy could also help boost his flagging approval ratings — a key indicator for how Democrats are likely to fare in November.

A CBS News poll released last week showed just 39 percent of respondents approved of the president’s handling of foreign policy, versus 48 percent who disapproved. The president was never underwater on foreign policy during his first term.  

But Robert Kagan, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, says gauging how the public will interpret the president’s comments is difficult. Kagan said Obama has sought the “dead center” of Americans’ sentiment on foreign policy.

“It’s very rare presidents push hard against what they think the majority of Americans want to do,” Kagan said.

Obama has repeatedly sought to contrast his efforts with those of the Bush administration, and has tied GOP critics such as Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) to the battle over the Iraq War.

“For some reason many who were proponents of what I consider to be a disastrous decision to go into Iraq haven’t really learned the lesson of the last decade,” Obama said at an April press conference in Manila.

“The question I think I would have is, why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force after we’ve just gone through a decade of war at enormous costs to our troops and to our budget?” he added. “And what is it exactly that these critics think would have been accomplished?”