By Justin Sink - 05/28/14 10:50 AM EDT
President Obama on Wednesday argued for a new breed of American foreign policy that prizes diplomacy and multilateralism over the overreaching use of military force.
Republican lawmakers have charged that Obama's caution has allowed rival leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin to gain influence and ruthless dictators like Syria's Bashar Assad to further entrench.
But the president argued that, amid a changing international landscape and in the aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, "U.S. military action cannot be the only — or even primary — component of our leadership."
"Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail," Obama told graduating cadets.
Obama argued that the threshold for military action must be higher when issues arise that "do not pose a direct threat to the United States.”
"In such circumstances, we should not go it alone. Instead, we must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action. 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.
The president said that, by allying with other countries, U.S interests were more likely to succeed and less likely "to lead to costly mistakes."
The comment appeared to be a direct rebuke to critics who have charged that the president's foreign policy is faltering because he is unwilling to intervene. The president and aides have looked to push back against that narrative, using moments like his announcement Tuesday that troops will leave Afghanistan by the end of 2016 to note that it is harder to end a war than begin one.
"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," Obama told the cadets.
"Some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences, without building international support and legitimacy for our action or leveling with the American people about the sacrifice required," Obama said. "Tough talk draws headlines, but war rarely conforms to slogans."
Obama said the one enduring direct threat to the U.S. came from global terrorism, but that, again, engaging partners around the world remained the best strategy.
"A strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naïve and unsustainable," Obama said. "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 announced a pair of new foreign policy initiatives intended to embody his new approach: increased aid to the moderate opposition in Syria and a $5 billion anti-terrorism fund designed to help other countries fight the rise of radical extremists within their borders.
The fund, which will require congressional approval, is designed to boost intelligence, reconnaissance, surveillance and special operations activities in allied countries. The U.S. military will help train and prepare other governments to root out terrorists within their borders.
In Syria, U.S. special forces will reportedly train and increase material support to moderate rebels that can be vetted as not having links to radical Islamist groups. The U.S. will also step up assistance to Syria's neighbors, who have borne the brunt of hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the bloody three-year civil war that has left more than 150,000 people dead.
"In helping those who fight for the right of all Syrians to choose their own future, we also push back against the growing number of extremists who find safe-haven in the chaos," Obama said.
The moves represent an escalation for the U.S., which, so far, has only acknowledged providing rebels with nonlethal aid. But Republican leaders on Capitol Hill have slammed the president's reluctance to provide weaponry, arguing it has emboldened Syrian President Bashar Assad. Rebels have suffered significant setbacks in recent weeks, and Obama acknowledged there were "no easy answers … that can eliminate the terrible suffering anytime soon."
The president said U.S. foreign policy must also include "efforts to strengthen and enforce international order."
"Evolving these institutions to meet the demands of today must be a critical part of American leadership," Obama said.
The president acknowledged that "skeptics often downplay the effectiveness of multilateral action" but said the West's united response to Russia's incursion into Ukraine and Iran's willingness to negotiate on a nuclear weapons deal underscored why international institutions could work.
"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," Obama said.
Obama concluded by arguing that the U.S. must continue to support democracy and human rights efforts across the globe, while acknowledging that sometimes required imperfect compromises. He cited instances like Egypt, where security interests and democratic reforms could appear at odds.
"American leadership also 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," Obama said.
The president's speech is intended to serve as a kick off to a broad foreign policy push by the president and his Cabinet, according to the White House.
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. In the coming days, Cabinet members will also fan out across Capitol Hill to bolster the White House’s arguments.