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Obama defends his foreign policy strategy

Jun 01,2014 - Last updated at Jun 01,2014

After being stung by conservative criticism and popular misgivings over what was viewed as a weak response to the civil war in Syria and the Russian invasion of Crimea, US President Barack Obama presented his vision of the United States foreign policy to the graduating class of military cadets at West Point.

The  theme of the president’s speech was that the United States should not respond to every crisis in the world with military force or intervention, but rather rely on diplomacy, technical assistance, economic sanctions and humanitarian aid.

With the US out of Iraq and in the process of ending its military commitment in Afghanistan by 2016, Obama remains convinced that there must be a balance between intervention and isolationism.

He believes that when US security and interests are threatened in the world, the use of force may be appropriate, but he also stressed that the use of a full array of actions short of force should be employed as a first step, rather than move quickly towards the military option.

Obama and his foreign policy advisers are aware that the perception of many Americans is that the US is in decline as a world power and that the president failed to follow through on its promises and threats.

Yet, at the same time, those same Americans show that they are tired of war, of the loss of thousands of soldiers and of spending trillions of dollars on conflicts in distant lands. 

The mood now is to address a range of domestic needs.

What Obama articulated in his West Point speech is a strategy that seeks a middle ground, reminding those who would challenge the US, particularly terrorists, that the country is prepared to engage its enemies by allocating $5 billion for a Counterterrorism Partnership Fund to assist in the training of special forces units in countries threatened by Al Qaeda or its radical offshoots.

In a surprise move, Obama suggested that the US would likely begin training moderate opponents of the Assad regime in Syria, supplying them with weapons that could level the military playing field.

But at the same time, Obama reminded the cadets that the days of huge military interventions are over. These young soldiers may be the first in years that will not move quickly into a war zone but rather prepare to engage in peacekeeping operations or small scale military actions.

It is not yet clear how this change of job description was received by the newest class of military leaders.

Many of President Barack Obama’s supporters believe he is forming a foreign policy plan that is based on caution and concern over long-term military commitments.

The defence of this approach is based on the need to elevate to a new level of importance diplomatic efforts and seek non-lethal answers to pressing geopolitical crises.

But to critics, Obama has only proved to the world that the US is no longer willing to take action that sends a clear signal to leaders who destabilise a region or violate international law.

Those critics will continue to portray the president as indecisive, weak and unwilling to use American military power.

Striking a balance between intervention and isolationism, and military force and diplomacy is an appropriate foreign policy strategy in the post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan world, but that will always raise questions about how far the US, and the Obama administration, is willing to use to respond to an international crisis. 

The writer is executive director of the Minnock Centre for International Engagement at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts, US. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times.

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