President Obama felt a need to answer critics of his foreign policy in his speech Wednesday at the United States Military Academy at West Point.
“By most measures, America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world,” Obama said. “Those who argue otherwise — who suggest that America is in decline, or has seen its global leadership slip away — are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics.”
Here are five reasons Obama sounds defensive on his foreign policy:
• Afghanistan: Obama on Tuesday announced a drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, effective by 2016, after withdrawing a troop surge there in 2012. The announcements appear timed to the end of Obama’s second term and his re-election campaign in 2012, rather than facts on the ground, argues Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a frequent administration critic who worked for former President George W. Bush.
“Announcing in advance that troops will be gone is like a gift to the Taliban,” Abrams said. “It would be better to tie the withdrawal to what’s happening on the ground in Afghanistan rather than tell the Taliban how they can wait us out.”
Obama said Wednesday that al-Qaeda’s core leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan “has been decimated” but that going forward, the USA will shift to “a train and advise mission” there.
• Iran: The Obama administration is seeking an agreement with Iran that would limit its nuclear activities in return for the elimination of international sanctions designed to stop a program Iran insists is peaceful, but that many believe is meant for nuclear weapons.
Obama says the deal would prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb, but critics like Abrams worry it will leave in place the infrastructure Iran could use to build such a weapon and result in the removal of sanctions that would impede Iran’s nuclear progress. “There’s a concern that he would negotiate a bad deal,” Abrams said.
Jofi Joseph, a former director for non-proliferation at Obama’s National Security Council, says Iran’s nuclear program has progressed so far that dismantling it completely “is both impossible to achieve and unnecessary.” Iran will always have the knowledge of how to reconstitute its program, and the international community should focus on setting the program back enough so it can be stopped if Iran decides to go for the bomb, Joseph said.
Obama in his speech said he organized unprecedented international sanctions against Iran, which brought the Islamic Republic to the table “to solve our differences peacefully.”
• Benghazi: The Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in eastern Libya that resulted in the deaths of U.S. ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans occurred despite multiple threat warnings about declining security and denials of requests for more security by Stevens and his staff.
Republicans have described the Obama administration’s response to security in Benghazi and its handling of the attack and its aftermath — no one has yet been held accountable for the attack — as a result of downplaying threats from al-Qaeda affiliates that have grown more dangerous across the Middle East.
Obama acknowledged terrorists have expanded their range and represent a greater threat to Americans abroad, but said they should be countered through local militaries and international institutions.
“We should not create more enemies than we take off the battlefield,” Obama told cadets at West Point.
• Syria: When the USA judged last summer that Syrian President Bashar Assad crossed Obama’s red line by using chemical weapons against his people, Obama pulled back from a threat to launch a military strike. Critics charged Obama missed an opportunity to show American resolve and to remove Assad’s Iran- and Russia-backed regime, which is executing a brutal campaign against an opposition that has the support of Syria’s majority Sunni population and of U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf.
“That has had a huge impact on confidence in the USA on the part of all our allies,” Abrams said.
Joseph said the U.S. interest in Syria has primarily been humanitarian, and that goal was served when Assad agreed to get rid of his chemical weapons under threat of a U.S. military strike. Allies understand that the USA would not accept threats to core national interests, such as a nuclear-armed Iran, he said.
The president Wednesday said the USA will provide additional aid to the moderate Syrian opposition and to countries surrounding Syria to help them fight terrorists.
• Ukraine: U.S. policy failed to prevent Russia from annexing Ukraine’s Crimea region or from allowing armed Russians to foment unrest in Ukraine’s eastern regions after Ukraine sought to align with the West. Obama has sought to “reset” U.S.-Russia relations after taking office in 2009, but critics like John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under former president George W. Bush, say Obama’s conciliatory tone toward Russia emboldened it to act more assertively toward former Soviet republics, and that now a new Cold War is forming.
Obama said Tuesday that while Russian aggression in Ukraine reminds some of Soviet tanks rolling across Eastern Europe, “This isn’t the Cold War.” Obama said American leadership in Europe immediately isolated Russia, while supporting Ukraine as it chose a new president Sunday.
“We don’t know how the situation will play out, and there will be grave challenges,” Obama said. “But standing with our allies on behalf of international order has given a chance for the Ukrainian people to choose their future.”