Standing before the newest class of officers graduating from the U.S. Military Academy, Obama said, "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's speech signaled a concerted effort by the White House to push back against those critics, who contend that the president's approach to global problems has been too cautious and has emboldened adversaries in Syria, Russia and China. It's a criticism that deeply frustrates the president and his advisers, who say Obama's efforts to keep the U.S. out of more military conflicts are in line with the views of the American public.
In a direct challenge to his critics, Obama declared: "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."
Even as the U.S. emerges from the two wars that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Obama said terrorism remains the most direct threat to American security. But he argued that as the threat has shifted from a centralized al-Qaida to an array of affiliates, the American response must change too.
Rather than launching large-scale military efforts, Obama called for partnering with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold. That effort includes a new $5 billion fund to help countries fight terrorism and to expand funding for Defense Department intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, special operations and other activities.
Obama cast the bloody civil war in Syria as more of counterterrorism challenge than a humanitarian crisis. He defended his decision to keep the U.S. military out of the conflict but said he would seek to increase support for the Syrian opposition, as well as neighboring countries including Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq that have faced an influx of refugees and fear the spread of terrorism.
"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.
One plan being considered by the White House is a project to train and equip members of the Free Syrian Army on tactics, including counterterrorism.
Obama's handling of the Syria conflict has intensified criticism of his foreign policy. After the Syrian government launched a chemical weapons attack last year — a move that crossed Obama's self-proclaimed "red line" — the president moved toward a military strike on Syria, only to reverse course and seek congressional approval, then abandon a strike altogether in favor of a deal to strip Syria of its stockpile of deadly gases.
The president's speech came one day after he outlined plans to wind down America's lengthy war in Afghanistan by the end of 2016. The blueprint calls for keeping 9,800 troops in Afghanistan for training and counterterrorism even after combat missions end later this year, but then withdraw them within two years.
The drawdown plan is central to Obama's long-standing pledge to bring to a close both the Afghan conflict and the Iraq war, which ended in late 2011. He was greeted by cheers from the graduating cadets when he noted that they had the distinction of being "the first class to graduate since 9/11 who may not be sent into combat in Iraq or Afghanistan."
Even as he heralded the end of those two wars, Obama said the U.S. would continue to use military force on its own "when our core interests demand it — when our people are threatened, when our livelihood is at stake, or when the security of our allies is in danger." He also continued to defend his use of drone strikes in places like Yemen and Somalia but called for increased transparency about the program that has long been shrouded in secrecy.
But a centerpiece of Obama's address was a defense of his preference for acting as part of an international coalition instead of pressing ahead alone. He challenged skeptics who see that approach as a sign of weakness and argued instead that it instead highlights America's ability to lead on the world stage.
Obama cited recent efforts to rally European support for sanctions against Russia after the Kremlin annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine. While the president insisted that Russia is now isolated, Obama's critics contend that his inability to stop Russian President Vladimir Putin from taking Crimea in the first place was a sign of weakness.
Obama also praised ongoing diplomatic efforts between Iran, the U.S. and its negotiating partners — Germany, Britain, France, China and Russia — that aim to strip the Islamic republic of its nuclear capabilities. While Obama said the odds of reaching an agreement are still long, he also said a diplomatic breakthrough would be "more effective and durable than what would be achieved through the use of force."
"Throughout these negotiations, it has been our willingness to work through multilateral channels that kept the world on our side," he said.
Julie Pace reported from Washington.
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