After defending his approach to foreign policy in a commencement address at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., President Barack Obama told NPR that America's leadership in the 21st century will be defined in part by its military strength — "but only in part."
"There are going to be times where we might have to go to war," Obama said in the wide-ranging interview that aired late Wednesday. "And that's why I think it's very important for us not to get into these simplistic ways of thinking about it, (that) either we pull back entirely and we're isolationist, or alternatively, every problem around the world is ours to manage."
Echoing some of themes in his West Point speech, Obama said the United States must "clearly define where is it in our national interests to use military force"— typically involving "direct interests, core interests, our safety, our security, our livelihoods, the protection of our allies, you know, international opinion matters, but we may have to act on our own."
But the president said conflicts like those in Syria and Ukraine are not America's to manage alone:
When it comes to the kinds of issues, though, that dominate the headlines — a conflict in Syria, a Russian incursion into Ukraine, the kidnapping of 200 young girls in Nigeria — in those circumstances, we are going to be most effective when we use a wide range of tools — diplomacy, sanctions, appeals to international law. In some cases, a judicious use of military force may make sense. But in those circumstances, it has to be in a multilateral system where other countries are participating, we are not going alone, because when we make sure that other countries are participating, that means that we've done our homework, we've thought through the consequences, we've built legitimacy, and we're not carrying the burden entirely on our own.
His comments came a day after announcing a drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
In his West Point speech, Obama called on Congress to create a $5 billion counterterrorism fund that would, in part, address the humanitarian crisis in Syria and aid opposition groups.
Obama told NPR that Syria's "moderate opposition" to Syrian President Bashar Assad — "farmers or dentists or maybe some radio reporters" — are inexperienced fighters "as opposed to the jihadists that have seen the chaos there as an opportunity to gain a foothold."
Creating a capacity for the rebels "to hold ground, to be able to rebuff vicious attacks, for them to be able to also organize themselves in ways that are cohesive — all that takes, unfortunately, more time than I think many people would like," he said.
But Obama added that America's support of the opposition has its limits, and that U.S. military intervention in Syria is still not an option.
"I still do not believe that American military actions can resolve what is increasingly a sectarian civil war," the president said. "And I also believe that, ultimately, the only way you're going to get a resolution that works for the Syrian people and the region ... is going to require some sort of political accommodation between the various groups there."
Obama also refuted the notion that Russian President Vladimir Putin had gained strength in his attempt to annex Crimea.
"It's a mistake to think that somehow Mr. Putin reflected strength in this situation," Obama said. "He was operating from a position of weakness."