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Obama lays out foreign policy suited to 21st century challenges, realities

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President Obama used his commencement address at West Point to lay out a foreign policy - it could be called the Obama Doctrine" - that has as its essential premise America's global leadership role, but that is suited to the challenges of the 21st century, listing terrorism and climate change as key threats to national security.

Asserting America's leadership and "exceptionalism", he insisted that America's leadership relies as much on the values it models for the world as its military might, and while the military will always be the "backbone" for its leadership, leadership will also come through alliances, coalitions and diplomacy, and following and upholding the rule of law and human rights.

He said, "America must always lead on the world stage. If we don’t, no one else will. The military that you have joined is and always will be the backbone of that leadership. But U.S. military action cannot be the only -- or even primary -- component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail. And because the costs associated with military action are so high, you should expect every civilian leader -- and especially your Commander-in-Chief -- to be clear about how that awesome power should be used."

"The question we face, the question each of you will face, is not whether America will lead, but how we will lead -- not just to secure our peace and prosperity, but also extend peace and prosperity around the globe."

He declared, "Ultimately, global leadership requires us to see the world as it is, with all its danger and uncertainty. We have to be prepared for the worst, prepared for every contingency. But American leadership also requires us to see the world as it should be -- a place where the aspirations of individual human beings really matters; where hopes and not just fears govern; where the truths written into our founding documents can steer the currents of history in a direction of justice. And we cannot do that without you."

In an address that was remarkably precise, frank - acknowledging critics and opposing views, for example - he laid out a plan that was well-reasoned and realistic, but received rather tepid reaction from the graduates and their families, even as he declared they would be " for you are the first class to graduate since 9/11 who may not be sent into combat in Iraq or Afghanistan."

He offered a rational, realistic, well reasoned argument that took on his detractors that attacked directly the notion of cavalierly sending young men and women into war, to their death or lifelong injury, especially when many of the most colossal mistakes in history have come out of war, while some of the greatest successes have come through alliances and diplomacy.

Obama challenged critics who - mainly for partisan reasons - downplay America's strength and its place in the world, saying, "By most measures, America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world. 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. Think about it. Our military has no peer. The odds of a direct threat against us by any nation are low and do not come close to the dangers we faced during the Cold War.

"Meanwhile, our economy remains the most dynamic on Earth; our businesses the most innovative. Each year, we grow more energy independent. From Europe to Asia, we are the hub of alliances unrivaled in the history of nations. America continues to attract striving immigrants. The values of our founding inspire leaders in parliaments and new movements in public squares around the globe. And when a typhoon hits the Philippines, or schoolgirls are kidnapped in Nigeria, or masked men occupy a building in Ukraine, it is America that the world looks to for help. (Applause.) So the United States is and remains the one indispensable nation. That has been true for the century passed and it will be true for the century to come."

But, he continued, "the world is changing with accelerating speed. This presents opportunity, but also new dangers. We know all too well, after 9/11, just how technology and globalization has put power once reserved for states in the hands of individuals, raising the capacity of terrorists to do harm. Russia’s aggression toward former Soviet states unnerves capitals in Europe, while China’s economic rise and military reach worries its neighbors. From Brazil to India, rising middle classes compete with us, and governments seek a greater say in global forums. And even as developing nations embrace democracy and market economies, 24-hour news and social media makes it impossible to ignore the continuation of sectarian conflicts and failing states and popular uprisings that might have received only passing notice a generation ago.

"It will be your generation’s task to respond to this new world," he said.

But how America will lead is the question, he said. Throughout American history there has been the push-pull of isolationists and interventionists. The inclination to avoid "foreign entanglements that do not touch directly on our security or economic wellbeing" goes back to George Washington, while interventionists "from the left and right" say "we ignore these conflicts at our own peril, that America’s willingness to apply force around the world is the ultimate safeguard against chaos, and America’s failure to act in the face of Syrian brutality or Russian provocations not only violates our conscience, but invites escalating aggression in the future."

But, Obama said, "I believe neither view fully speaks to the demands of this moment. It is absolutely true that in the 21st century American isolationism is not an option. We don’t have a choice to ignore what happens beyond our borders. If nuclear materials are not secure, that poses a danger to American cities. As the Syrian civil war spills across borders, the capacity of battle-hardened extremist groups to come after us only increases. Regional aggression that goes unchecked -- whether in southern Ukraine or the South China Sea, or anywhere else in the world -- will ultimately impact our allies and could draw in our military. We can’t ignore what happens beyond our boundaries.

"And beyond these narrow rationales, I believe we have a real stake, an abiding self-interest, in making sure our children and our grandchildren grow up in a world where schoolgirls are not kidnapped and where individuals are not slaughtered because of tribe or faith or political belief. I believe that a world of greater freedom and tolerance is not only a moral imperative, it also helps to keep us safe. "

He offered a rational, realistic, well reasoned argument that took on his detractors - like former VP Dick Cheney who constantly attacks him as "weak" - turning the attack on those who would cavalierly sending young men and women into war, to their death or lifelong injury, especially when many of the most colossal mistakes in history have come out of war, while some of the greatest successes have come through alliances and diplomacy.

He expressed the emotional toll of a Commander in Chief who sends soldiers to battle who do not come home - and spoke personally of four West Pointers who were in the audience when he announced the surge in Afghanistan lost their lives.

"I believe America’s security demanded those deployments. But I am haunted by those deaths. I am haunted by those wounds. And I would betray my duty to you and to the country we love if I ever sent you into harm’s way simply because I saw a problem somewhere in the world that needed to be fixed, or because I was worried about critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak," he said.

"But to say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution. Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint, but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences -- without building international support and legitimacy for our action; without leveling with the American people about the sacrifices required. Tough talk often draws headlines, but war rarely conforms to slogans. As General Eisenhower, someone with hard-earned knowledge on this subject, said at this ceremony in 1947: “War is mankind’s most tragic and stupid folly; to seek or advise its deliberate provocation is a black crime against all men.”

Four Point Foreign Policy

Obama laid out an alternative "vision for how the United States of America and our military should lead in the years to come, for you will be part of that leadership," he told the West Pointers, elucidating when military intervention is appropriate, when multinational alliances to assert the rule of law, or diplomacy are more appropriate, especially in light of the key threats to national security: terrorism and climate change.

Reinforcing a principle that he has held since the beginning of his presidency, he said, "The United States will use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when our core interests demand it -- when our people are threatened, when our livelihoods are at stake, when the security of our allies is in danger. In these circumstances, we still need to ask tough questions about whether our actions are proportional and effective and just. International opinion matters, but America should never ask permission to protect our people, our homeland, or our way of life. (Applause.)

"On the other hand, when issues of global concern do not pose a direct threat to the United States, when such issues are at stake -- when crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction but do not directly threaten us -- then the threshold for military action must be higher. In such circumstances, we should not go it alone. Instead, we must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action. We have to broaden our tools to include diplomacy and development; sanctions and isolation; appeals to international law; and, if just, necessary and effective, multilateral military action. In such circumstances, we have to work with others because collective action in these circumstances is more likely to succeed, more likely to be sustained, less likely to lead to costly mistakes."

"For the foreseeable future," he said, "the most direct threat to America at home and abroad remains terrorism. But a strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naïve and unsustainable. I believe we must shift our counterterrorism strategy -- drawing on the successes and shortcomings of our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan -- to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold. "

But the principle threat is no longer a centralized Al Qaeda, but rather "decentralized al Qaeda affiliates and extremists, many with agendas focused in countries where they operate. And this lessens the possibility of large-scale 9/11-style attacks against the homeland, but it heightens the danger of U.S. personnel overseas being attacked, as we saw in Benghazi. It heightens the danger to less defensible targets, as we saw in a shopping mall in Nairobi.

"So we have to develop a strategy that matches this diffuse threat," he said. "one that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military too thin, or stir up local resentments. We need partners to fight terrorists alongside us. And empowering partners is a large part of what we have done and what we are currently doing in Afghanistan."

In his West Point speech, the President announced that he would ask Congress to support a new Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund of up to $5 billion "which will allow us to train, build capacity, and facilitate partner countries on the front lines. And these resources will give us flexibility to fulfill different missions, including training security forces in Yemen who have gone on the offensive against al Qaeda; supporting a multinational force to keep the peace in Somalia; working with European allies to train a functioning security force and border patrol in Libya; and facilitating French operations in Mali.

In support of these counterterrorism capacity-building efforts, the Administration will also request funding for expanded or enhanced DOD activities, such as Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance; Special Operations; and other activities.

The president also used the speech to announce stepped up efforts using the US military to support the Syrian opposition and Syria’s neighbors -- Jordan and Lebanon; Turkey and Iraq -- as they contend with refugees and confront terrorists working across Syria’s borders.

" I will work with Congress to ramp up support for those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists and brutal dictators. And we will continue to coordinate with our friends and allies in Europe and the Arab World to push for a political resolution of this crisis, and to make sure that those countries and not just the United States are contributing their fair share to support the Syrian people."

The President said that partnerships do not eliminate the need to take direct action when necessary to protect ourselves.

"When we have actionable intelligence, that’s what we do -- through capture operations like the one that brought a terrorist involved in the plot to bomb our embassies in 1998 to face justice; or drone strikes like those we’ve carried out in Yemen and Somalia. There are times when those actions are necessary, and we cannot hesitate to protect our people.

"But as I said last year, in taking direct action we must uphold standards that reflect our values. That means taking strikes only when we face a continuing, imminent threat, and only where there is no certainty -- there is near certainty of no civilian casualties. For our actions should meet a simple test: We must not create more enemies than we take off the battlefield."

The President also addressed the need to be more transparent in its counterterrorism actions and the manner in which they are carried out

"We have to be able to explain them publicly, whether it is drone strikes or training partners. I will increasingly turn to our military to take the lead and provide information to the public about our efforts. Our intelligence community has done outstanding work, and we have to continue to protect sources and methods. But 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.

"And this issue of transparency is directly relevant to a third aspect of American leadership, and that is our effort to strengthen and enforce international order" including in addressing cyberattacks, climate change, and such disputes as sea rights.

He noted that many skeptics downplay the effectiveness of multilateral action.

"For them, working through international institutions like the U.N. or respecting international law is a sign of weakness. I think they’re wrong."

He cited Ukraine, and how the swift action of a coalition, led by the United States " served as a counterweight to Russian propaganda and Russian troops on the border and armed militias in ski masks", and the results can be seen in the recent election which " has given a chance for the Ukrainian people to choose their future without us firing a shot."

Iran is another example - where by first building a coalition to exert sanctions, and then extending the hand of diplomacy, " for the first time in a decade, we have a very real chance of achieving a breakthrough agreement -- one that is more effective and durable than what we could have achieved through the use of force. And throughout these negotiations, it has been our willingness to work through multilateral channels that kept the world on our side."

"The point is this is American leadership. This is American strength. In each case, we built coalitions to respond to a specific challenge. Now we need to do more to strengthen the institutions that can anticipate and prevent problems from spreading." These include NATO and the United Nations."

Armed conflict is not the only threat to international norms, he said, so are cyberattacks, "which is why we’re working to shape and enforce rules of the road to secure our networks and our citizens."

He also pointed to resolving disputes through international law in terms of supporting Southeast Asian nations as they negotiate a code of conduct with China on maritime disputes in the South China Sea.

Obama also addressed challenge of combating climate change, saying "That spirit of cooperation needs to energize the global effort to combat climate change -- a creeping national security crisis that will help shape your time in uniform, as we are called on to respond to refugee flows and natural disasters and conflicts over water and food, which is why next year I intend to make sure America is out front in putting together a global framework to preserve our planet.

"You see, American influence is always stronger when we lead by example. We can’t exempt ourselves from the rules that apply to everybody else. We can’t call on others to make commitments to combat climate change if a whole lot of our political leaders deny that it’s taking place. We can’t try to resolve problems in the South China Sea when we have refused to make sure that the Law of the Sea Convention is ratified by our United States Senate, despite the fact that our top military leaders say the treaty advances our national security. That’s not leadership; that’s retreat. That’s not strength; that’s weakness. It would be utterly foreign to leaders like Roosevelt and Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy.

"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 is our willingness to affirm them through our actions. "

In this respect, he said, he will renew his campaign to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay "because American values and legal traditions do not permit the indefinite detention of people beyond our borders."

It is also why he will press "for new restrictions on how America collects and uses intelligence -- because we will have fewer partners and be less effective if a perception takes hold that we’re conducting surveillance against ordinary citizens. (Applause.)

"America does not simply stand for stability or the absence of conflict, no matter what the cost. We stand for the more lasting peace that can only come through opportunity and freedom for people everywhere."

He continued that the fourth and final element of American leadership is "Our willingness to act on behalf of human dignity. America’s support for democracy and human rights goes beyond idealism -- it is a matter of national security. Democracies are our closest friends and are far less likely to go to war. Economies based on free and open markets perform better and become markets for our goods. Respect for human rights is an antidote to instability and the grievances that fuel violence and terror.

"A new century has brought no end to tyranny. In capitals around the globe -- including, unfortunately, some of America’s partners -- there has been a crackdown on civil society. The cancer of corruption has enriched too many governments and their cronies, and enraged citizens from remote villages to iconic squares. And watching these trends, or the violent upheavals in parts of the Arab World, it’s easy to be cynical.

"But remember that because of America’s efforts, because of American diplomacy and foreign assistance as well as the sacrifices of our military, more people live under elected governments today than at any time in human history. Technology is empowering civil society in ways that no iron fist can control. New breakthroughs are lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. And even the upheaval of the Arab World reflects the rejection of an authoritarian order that was anything but stable, and now offers the long-term prospect of more responsive and effective governance."

And he showed how the challenges are not black and white, standing up for democratic principles, for example, does not always jibe perfectly with our national interests, citing Egypt as an example.

"In countries like Egypt, we acknowledge that our relationship is anchored in security interests -- from peace treaties with Israel, to shared efforts against violent extremism. So we have not cut off cooperation with the new government, but we can and will persistently press for reforms that the Egyptian people have demanded."

The loudest, most sustained applause came when the President spoke of Gavin White, who graduated West Point three years ago, went to Afghanistan where he lost one of his legs in an attack, and the president met him at Walter Reade Hospital. "He developed a simple goal. Today, his sister Morgan will graduate. And true to his promise, Gavin will be there to stand and exchange salutes with her," he said to applause that built in volume and intensity.

Obama concluded by telling the graduates, "We have been through a long season of war. We have faced trials that were not foreseen, and we’ve seen divisions about how to move forward. But there is something in Gavin’s character, there is something in the American character that will always triumph. Leaving here, you carry with you the respect of your fellow citizens. You will represent a nation with history and hope on our side. Your charge, now, is not only to protect our country, but to do what is right and just. As your Commander-in-Chief, I know you will."

Karen Rubin, Long Island Populist Examiner
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