WEST POINT, N.Y. — President Obama on Wednesday laid out a new, post-9/11 foreign policy after more than a decade of war overseas, outlining a global counterterrorism initiative and arguing for a balance between interventionism and “foreign entanglements.”
In a commencement address at the U.S. Military Academy, he stressed the importance of nonmilitary options in addressing the world’s foreign policy challenges, as well as collective international action.
Coming more than six years into a presidency that has been devoted to winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama’s announcement of his new foreign policy approach also featured a defense of his administration’s handling of foreign crises and a suggestion that some critics are out of step with a nation weary after 13 years of war.
He sought to strike a balance between those who want to avoid involvement in foreign conflicts and “interventionists on the left and right” who want to apply U.S. power to solve various world problems.
“Each side can point to history to support its claims,” Obama said. “But I believe neither view fully speaks to the demands of this moment. It is absolutely true that in the 21st century, American isolationism is not an option. . . . But to say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution.“
With the United States drawing down its forces in Afghanistan, Obama called on Congress to support a new $5 billion “Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund” to respond to evolving terrorist threats around the world. The White House said the program “will provide the flexibility and resources required to respond to emerging needs as terrorist threats around the world continue to evolve.”
Obama also defended his decision during his first term to surge forces in Afghanistan. “America’s security demanded those deployments,” he said. “But I am haunted by those deaths. I am haunted by those wounds. And 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 to be fixed, or because I was worried about critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak.”
He said that “for the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America at home and abroad remains terrorism.” However, he added, “a strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naïve and unsustainable. 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.”
As the United States moves to a military training and advisory mission in Afghanistan, Obama said, “our reduced presence there will allow us to more effectively address emerging threats in the Middle East and North Africa.” He said he asked his national security team earlier this year to “develop a plan for a network of partnerships” from South Asia to North Africa.
“Today, as part of this effort, I am calling on Congress to support a new Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund of up to $5 billion, which will allow us to train, build capacity, and facilitate partner countries on the front lines, Obama said. “These resources will give us flexibility to fulfill different missions, including training security forces in Yemen who have gone on the offensive against al-Qaeda; supporting a multinational force to keep the peace in Somalia; working with European allies to train a functioning security force and border patrol in Libya; and facilitating French operations in Mali.”
He said one critical focus of the effort would be the ongoing crisis in Syria, which has been wracked by civil war for three years. He said the additional resources would allow the United States to step up efforts to support Syria’s neighbors, which have had to host refugees and confront terrorists.
“The partnership I’ve described does not eliminate the need to take direct action when necessary to protect ourselves,” Obama warned. “When we have actionable intelligence, that’s what we do.”
But he said direct actions must conform with U.S. values. “That means taking strikes only when we face a continuing, imminent threat, and only where there is near certainty of no civilian casualties,” he said. “For our actions should meet a simple test: we must not create more enemies than we take off the battlefield.”
Obama added that he would increasingly ask the U.S. military “to take the lead and provide information to the public a bout our efforts.” While the intelligence community “has done outstanding work,” the need to protect sources and methods means that “when we cannot explain our efforts clearly and publicly, we face terrorist propaganda and international suspicion; we erode legitimacy with our partners and our people; and we reduce accountability in our own government.”
The administration’s request for $5 billion for the new counterterrorism partnerships in fiscal 2015 would also cover expanded or enhanced Defense Department efforts, including intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and Special Operations activities, the White House said in a fact sheet.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry previewed the announcement early Wednesday in appearances on morning television programs. He also defended Obama’s decision to terminate the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan by the end of 2014 while keeping a residual force of 9,800 for another year and gradually reducing it to a small presence at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul by the end of 2016.
Kerry said on NBC’s “Today” show that Obama is telling the Afghans “by a specific time they have to take over management of their own security and military.” He said the Afghans must realize that they do not have “all the time in the world.” He added, however, “This is not an abandonment of Afghanistan. . . . This is an empowerment of Afghanistan.” Interviewed on “CBS This Morning,” Kerry said the pullout would allow the United States to put resources into fighting terrorism in other parts of the world.
In announcing the new counterterrorism fund, the White House said it was finalizing the Defense Department portion of the fiscal 2015 Overseas Contingency Operations consistent with Obama’s decision on troop levels in Afghanistan. It said the request would “reflect a continued downward trajectory of war-related spending.”
The new Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund would “build on existing tools and authorities to allow the administration to respond to evolving terrorist threats,” the White House said. “It will allow us to pursue a more sustainable and effective approach to combating terrorism that focuses on empowering and enabling our partners around the globe.“
This article originally appeared in The Washington Post. William Branigin reported from Washington.
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