As the nation emerges from more than a decade of war, President Barack Obama is seeking to recast U.S. foreign policy as an endeavor aimed at building international consensus and avoiding unilateral overreach.
Obama was to outline his approach Wednesday during a commencement address at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. The speech comes one day after the president put forward a blueprint for ending U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan by the time he leaves office.
“I’m confident that if we carry out this approach, we can not only responsibly end our war in Afghanistan and achieve the objectives that took us to war in the first place, we’ll also be able to begin a new chapter in the story of American leadership around the world,” Obama said Tuesday during an appearance in the White House Rose Garden.
Obama’s efforts to pull the U.S. out of the lengthy and expensive conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have largely defined his foreign policy for much of his presidency. But he’s at times struggled to articulate how his response to a new set of challenges in places like Syria, Ukraine and Iran fit into an overarching foreign policy philosophy.
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That’s left Obama open to intense criticism from opponents who argue he has squandered America’s global leadership and lacks the credible threat of action that can stop international foes. That criticism has deeply frustrated the president and is a driving factor in his decision to deliver Wednesday’s speech.
White House officials say Obama will argue that the U.S. is a linchpin in efforts to seek international cooperation, a posture that puts the nation on stronger footing than when it acts alone. Officials point to U.S. actions involving Ukraine, with Washington rallying European nations to join the U.S. in enacting economic sanctions on Russia after Moscow annexed the Crimean Peninsula. And with Iran, the U.S. led secret talks with the Islamic republic that spurred broader international nuclear negotiations.
The crisis in Syria continues to be among the most vexing problems facing the White House. Even as Obama contends that an agreement to strip Syria of its chemical weapons was a success, that deal has done nothing to end the bloody civil war, which is now in its fourth year and which, according to activists, has left more than 160,000 people dead.
Obama is expected to cast Syria as a counterterrorism challenge in his speech Wednesday, making clear the U.S. continues to believe the right approach is strengthening the moderate opposition fighting forces loyal to President Bashar Assad. Administration officials say Obama may soon sign off on a project to train and equip those rebels, though it appeared unlikely that program would be ready for him to announce at West Point.
The president is also expected to discuss the counterterrorism threat facing the U.S. more broadly, arguing as he often has that core al-Qaida has been weakened even if splinter groups become a growing menace.
Counterterrorism missions will be a central part of the continued U.S. military presence in Afghanistan that Obama announced Tuesday. Though combat missions will officially end later this year, Obama is leaving behind about 10,000 U.S. troops to train Afghan security forces and try to push back extremists.
The U.S. troop presence will be cut in half by the end of 2015 and concentrated in the capital of Kabul and at Bagram Air Field, the main U.S. base in Afghanistan. By the end of 2016, as Obama is preparing to leave the White House, the U.S. troop presence will be cut to fewer than 1,000.
The drawdown blueprint is contingent on Afghanistan’s government signing a stalled bilateral security agreement. While Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign the accord, U.S. officials say they’re confident that either of the candidates running to replace him will finalize the deal.
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