President Barack Obama will use his commencement speech at West Point this week to defend his handling of an ever-widening array of foreign policy crises and to outline top national security goals for his fast-shrinking time in office, officials say.
Under fire from Republicans who accuse him of being a weak president overseeing a dramatic and dangerous American retreat from the world stage, the president who ordered the death of Osama bin Laden but has been powerless to stop the bloodbath in Syria will argue that he has struck the right balance — and will continue to do so.
“You will hear the president discuss how the United States will use all the tools in our arsenal without overreaching,” a White House official said on condition of anonymity.
“He will lay out why the right policy is one that is both interventionist and internationalist, but not isolationist or unilateral,” the official said.
It’s a familiar theme for a president who won his first term in large part on his vow to pull U.S. forces out of Iraq and promised voters who wondered whether to give him a second term that he would end the American war in Afghanistan.
Aides say Obama found his previous West Point commencement speech, in 2010, a moving experience because of the knowledge that many of the graduates would soon head off to fight the Taliban in America’s longest war.
It’s not clear how much Obama can still change public perceptions — his foreign policy, once a bright spot in public opinion polls, now rates below 50 percent approval. But aides argue that there are many works-in-progress that require the president’s voice — the withdrawal of most troops from Afghanistan and the debates over drones and spying, to name just a few. And there are crises out of his control, as well: Ukraine, dangerously escalating tensions between China and U.S. allies in Asia, North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. And then there’s the legacy-defining bet Obama has placed on talks with Iran, potentially the last shot at negotiating an end to Tehran’s suspect nuclear program.
“The United States and I don’t have the luxury of choosing just one problem at a time,” he said during a recent swing through Asia.
On that same trip, Obama hit back at the “weak president” charges, accusing Republicans who hurl that epithet at him of seeing “the use of force as the definitive answer” to many problems.
“You would think, given that we’ve just gone through a decade of war, that that assumption would be subject to some questioning,” the president said.
Obama’s address on Wednesday at the United States Military Academy touches off a busy 10-day stretch, and aides underline that the West Point address won’t be his “one bite at the apple” on foreign policy.
Days after the speech, he heads to Europe for a trip heavily defined by his standoff with Russian President Vladimir Putin over Ukraine. Obama will reaffirm America’s ties to the continent in a speech in Warsaw, then attend a rich-nation summit in Brussels from which Putin has been banned.
Following those events, Obama will head to Normandy, France, for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion — a reminder of a pivotal era in which Washington and Moscow battled the same enemy.
“The president’s engagements will explain how we move out of a period of war in Iraq and Afghanistan to a new stage in our engagement with the world, what we expect to accomplish over the next 2.5 years of the administration, and how our approach in hot spots like Ukraine, Iran and Syria fit into that construct,” the White House official said.
Obama will also tackle one of the sharpest criticisms of his strategy: that he has neglected the rise of al-Qaida offshoots and other extremist groups that have found havens in places like Iraq, Libya and Syria.
“The president will talk about how the threat has changed and how an effective U.S. strategy will adapt to combat al-Qaida and the decentralized groups that pose a threat from South Asia to the Sahel,” the official said.
Obama laid out many of his ideas one year ago at the National Defense University. But his promise to get America off a "permanent war footing" by repealing the law that underpins much of the war on terrorism has fallen short. This past week, top aides told incredulous senators that they could not say whether or how the White House aimed to proceed on that front. One senior lawmaker described a foreign policy discussion at the White House as "one of the most bizarre I've attended."
Obama’s top foreign policy and national security aides will amplify the message over the summer. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Adviser Susan Rice and top counter-terrorism aide Lisa Monaco will “take on pieces of the agenda and engage the debate over foreign policy with an affirmative U.S. case,” the official said.