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At West Point, Obama answers foreign policy criticism with speech on America’s role in the world

May 28, 2014 at 6:06 PM EDT
President Obama addressed West Point graduates with a commencement speech that doubled as a defense of his foreign policy and a statement on his view of America's role abroad. Judy Woodruff examines the president’s remarks with former State Department official Thomas Pickering, former National Security Council staff member Elliott Abrams and Stephen Walt of Harvard University.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: In a highly anticipated speech before hundreds of future American military leaders, President Obama today pushed back against critics of his actions on the world stage today.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The question we face, the question each of you will face is not whether America will lead, but how we will lead.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It was a commencement speech that doubled as a defense of the president’s foreign policy and his view of America’s role in the world. He addressed graduates at the U.S. military academy in West Point, New York, and tried to stake out a middle ground on involving the U.S. abroad.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Today, according to self-described realists, conflicts in Syria or Ukraine or the Central African Republic are not ours to solve.

A different view from interventionists from the left and the right says that we ignore these conflicts at our own peril.

And each side can point to history to support its claims. But I believe neither view fully speaks to the demands of this moment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The speech came at a moment when the president is under growing criticism that he’s projected weakness, encouraging adversaries to take advantage. Pushing back against those critics, he argued the nation must consider future steps carefully, after what he called a long season of war.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 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.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Instead, Mr. Obama called again for international organizations to play a greater role in addressing global troubles.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Now, there are a lot of folks, a lot of skeptics, who often 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.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president cited Ukraine’s presidential election this past weekend and the interim nuclear agreement with Iran as signs of the power of international cooperation.

He spoke just a day after outlining plans to end U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan. And his West Point remarks made clear the experience as commander in chief has left its mark.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Four of the service members who stood in the audience when I announced the surge of our forces in Afghanistan gave their lives in that effort. A lot more were wounded. I believe America’s security demanded those deployments. But I am haunted by those deaths. I am haunted by those wounds.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It was 9/11 that initially triggered U.S. military action in Afghanistan. But the president argued a centralized al-Qaida has since given way to affiliates, so the U.S. must change its approach.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: For the foreseeable future, 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 naive and unsustainable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Instead, he called for a $5 billion effort to help other countries fight terrorists. As part of that effort, the president said he would work with Congress to ramp up support for the Syrian opposition, but gave no specifics.

At the same time, he insisted the U.S. will use military force when core interests demand it, including drone strikes. But he again promised greater transparency.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 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.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The speech sets the stage for the president’s trip to Europe next week and for further debate in this year of congressional elections.

To assess the president’s vision of America abroad, we get three views. Thomas Pickering was undersecretary of state for political affairs during the Clinton administration. He also served as U.S. ambassador to a number of countries, including Russia and the United Nations, during his long diplomatic career. Elliott Abrams was deputy national security adviser during the George W. Bush administration. He’s now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. And Stephen Walt is a professor of international affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. He’s written extensively about U.S. foreign policy.

And welcome the three of you.

Elliott Abrams, let me start with you.

What was your main reaction to what the president had to say, especially his description of how he sees the U.S. role in the world?

ELLIOTT ABRAMS, Former National Security Council Staff: My main reaction was, where’s the beef?

This was billed as a major speech, but there were no real significance changes in it, no new announcements. The president had more straw men in the speech, I think, than there were cadets in the audience. He posited that he is the golden mean between the isolationists and the interventionists.

That’s not an argument. And setting up straw men and saying that other people want to send troops to Syria — don’t of no one who wants to do that — want to intervene everyplace, that’s not an argument. And it is I thought disrespectful to the people in Congress and in the press and in the country who are arguing about foreign policy to make believe that these are not serious arguments.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thomas Pickering, straw men, making up an enemy?

THOMAS PICKERING, Former State Department Official: Well, I haven’t talked to Elliott, but I think whatever he is look at straw men, I think that is a straw man argument, myself.

I think that the president’s speech was a good one. I think the president came out where he should have on the question of when we use military force unilaterally and when we go multilaterally. There is no question at all that the president will want to define some of these questions a little more concisely and clearly as the process goes ahead.

I thought he put together a nexus of arguments that was very persuasive on the things that he was going to concentrate on. He didn’t recede from U.S. leadership, despite the comments around the world that we have.

I think he made it very clear that he wants to be, put it this way, engaged in Syria, perhaps in a new and somewhat different way. We will have to wait and see where that’s going to come. He is finishing our commitment in Afghanistan, as he announced the day before, and that certainly underlay the speech in terms of the major arguments that he wanted to make.

And finally — and Elliott would know, because he himself was deeply engaged in this effort — that democracy and human rights are part of our foreign policy. He put it in, in a way that I think meshed it well with what else is being done. And I think, finally, he said, not all problems can be solved by military force. Indeed, some are made worse by military force. And diplomacy and development have an important role.

I would think that there are details here that one could quibble about, but I think, overall, the structure of the speech, the general message and direction was good. And I think it did change a number of ideas and thoughts and attitudes that had been prevalent in this country for some time that needed to be corrected.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Stephen Walt, where do you come down?

STEPHEN WALT, Harvard University: Well, I think the speech began in a very positive way by reminding the audience that the United States is very powerful and very secure and that we face no direct threat of attack from any nation.

I think that’s very important. I think he was also, of course, correct to emphasize that the use of military power has to be weighed very carefully, that there are many global problems where an immediate recourse to military force is not a good idea.

And that was an important message to send to the cadets and to the American people, because there are voices who are very quick to call for the United States to use force. We should also remember that he took office after the United States had been waging two unsuccessful wars at very great cost.

And we should also remember that this has not been a president who has been shy about military — using military force. He just wanted to use it in a more discreet and effective fashion. That was the upside of the speech for me.

The downside was I think he placed too much emphasis on terrorism. He mentioned it, I think, 17 times in the speech and continued to exaggerate the danger that most Americans face. Americans are 35,000 times more likely to die of heart disease than from a terrorist attack. And to continue to keep our focus so heavily on that particular problem, I think, was a mistake.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Elliott Abrams…

STEPHEN WALT: Finally…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Oh, go ahead. Finish your…

STEPHEN WALT: Finally, what was missing — yes — what was missing in the speech was a clear sense of priorities.

And that’s, I think, been the major problem for the administration all along. Because they have continued to define American interests so broadly, they end up getting buffeted any time any problem happens anywhere, and then get accused of not showing enough leadership.

And in that sense, he didn’t lay out which parts of the world he cares about most, which issues are most important, and what specific programs he’s going to follow to try and defend those interests.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, clearly, there’s much more here than we have time to deal with, unless we want to devote the whole program, which I would like to do.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Elliott Abrams, come back to this point about striking the balance between intervening and not intervening. Why do you think the president got that wrong?

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: Well, the worst moment, of course, was last summer in Syria, when his own advisers, Secretary Kerry, for example, wanted to intervene and the president at the last minute changed his mind.

It’s not so much that the balance is wrong in a particular case. It’s that the president doesn’t explain anything. He changed the policy on Syria yesterday by saying, yes, we are apparently going to arm rebels.

For two years, Secretary Panetta, Secretary Clinton, Secretary Kerry said, we should do that. He said no. Now he changes his mind, but he doesn’t tell us, what happened? What’s the theory? What changed? I think he also failed…

JUDY WOODRUFF: You didn’t — you didn’t hear…

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: I did not hear that. He just said, we’re going do it, but he didn’t say why were they wrong and now they’re right all of a sudden. There’s no explanation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you are saying that is important.

Ambassador Pickering, did you hear an explanation?

THOMAS PICKERING: I didn’t hear an explanation, but this wasn’t the speech for the deep explanation of Syrian policy.

It was the speech to provide the United States and the rest of the world with a conceptual approach as to how and in what way we would use the military force in combination with other foreign policy tools to meet our objectives.

I do think that he stated some objectives. The U.S. is assailed with what I would call a number of high-order second-rate problems that we’re dealing with that don’t affect our life, our existence or our prosperity. But they’re out there, and people are looking at us to lead.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Examples.

(CROSSTALK)

THOMAS PICKERING: Syria, of course, is one of them. Iran is another one, although I might say that Iran might — over time, where they develop a nuclear weapon, would be even higher order.

But whatever that may be, I think he noted. And I disagree with Stephen that terrorism is not a problem, Mali, Nigeria, Chad. And we can look around, South Sudan. These are areas where you have some impact of terrorism — Somalia. They’re not…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Not directly to the U.S.

THOMAS PICKERING: No, and they’re not — they’re not policies that affect our existence, but they are policies that affect friends, allies, trading relationships, and a lot of other reasons why we have been involved.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Stephen Walt first, and then come back to Elliott Abrams.

STEPHEN WALT: Well, I agree with Ambassador Pickering. Terrorism is a problem. I wouldn’t label it a vital threat to the United States today.

But, more importantly, we have seen the administration swing from issue to issue. We were going to pivot to Asia. Then we were going to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Now we’re going to focus more attention on counterterrorist cooperation throughout Africa.

What has been missing here is a sense of which issues are most important, which issues deserve sustained attention, and that, unfortunately, wasn’t provided in this particular speech.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Coming back to the priority point.

Elliott Abrams, you’re nodding.

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: I just wanted to say I think one of the things that was missing, which is odd in a speech at West Point, the president is presiding over a diminution of American military power.

The Air Force is getting smaller. The Navy is getting smaller. Army is getting smaller. Multilateralism…

JUDY WOODRUFF: But it’s the end of — it’s the end of a few wars.

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: Well, multilateralism is not going to work without American power.

That is what has been underwriting it since 1945. He talked about NATO. NATO is an extension of American power, not a substitute for American power. And I don’t think he ever really confronted that in the speech either.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You want to comment on that?

THOMAS PICKERING: I do.

I think that NATO is part of the American power issue, that, without the U.S. being involved, NATO isn’t going to work. And we see that very, very clearly. And I think that that is important.

I think that NATO is very much involved in Afghanistan. I think the president felt that it was time to get out of Afghanistan. I think that he feels that there are many more issues that can be resolved diplomatically. And he cited a couple of those in the speech, and it’s important to look at that.

So I think the general shift is not towards more buildup of the military, but a much wiser use of the military. And that’s the message we ought to take from the speech, not the question of this priority or that priority.

Admittedly, the president came to office with a world full of priorities and will leave the office with a world even more full of priorities, despite the difficulties.

And the fact that he has to deal with a number of them and doesn’t pick favorites one time after another is an indication of the degree to which the world is interconnected and that the global prosperity is in some ways our prosperity.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we leave this interview with a number of issues we would like to discuss longer. But we are going to leave it there.

And, of course, my colleague Gwen is going to be interviewing Secretary of State Kerry, so we will be hearing more about all this tomorrow.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Nicholas — I’m sorry — Elliott Abrams, Stephen Walt, and, who am I leaving…

THOMAS PICKERING: Tom Pickering.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thomas Pickering.

We thank you all.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMAS PICKERING: Thank you.

STEPHEN WALT: Thank you.