WEST POINT, N.Y. (CBSDC/AP) — In a broad defense of his foreign policy, President Barack Obama declared Wednesday that the U.S. remains the world’s most indispensable nation, even after a “long season of war,” but argued for restraint before embarking on more military adventures.
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 stated he will continue to “take direct action” by ordering drone strikes and capture operations against terror suspects “when necessary to protect ourselves.”
Obama said there still would be times when the U.S. must go it alone. He restated a policy he disclosed last May, however, that no drone strike should occur unless there is “a near certainty” that no civilians will be harmed.
Obama also reiterated his desire to move the drone program from the CIA to the military, despite opposition in Congress.
“I will increasingly turn to our military to take the lead and provide information to the public about our efforts,” the president said.
He said 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 CIA has carried out drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, while the military’s Joint Special Operations Command has conducted its own targeted drone missile attacks in Yemen and Somalia. There has not been a strike reported in Pakistan since December, the longest pause since Obama took office.
There have been 12 drone strikes reported this year in Yemen, according to Long War Journal, a web site that tracks the strikes through media reports.
Obama’s foreign policy speech signaled a concerted effort by the White House to push back on those critics, who contend that the president’s approach to global problems has been too cautious and has emboldened adversaries. 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.
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 new project to train and equip members of the Free Syrian Army on tactics, including counterterrorism.
CBS News National Security Analyst Juan Zarate says world leaders will look to see if real action will be taken following the president’s speech.
“Any time the American president speaks, people have to listen,” Juan Zarate told CBS News. “I think the real question, especially that our friends and allies around the world will have, is whether or not the policy is followed by real action they can perceive and… how this impacts the perception of American power.”
Zarate added: “The baseball analogy I would use is that we’re just not swinging the bat. And others in the international community see that and are affected by it… I think the president now realizes our absence on the world stage now creates problems on the world stage.”
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.
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