WASHINGTON - US President Barack Obama stressed multilateralism over militarism in what was billed as a major foreign policy address an a rebuttal to an ever-louder chorus of criticism, mostly by Republicans and neo-conservatives, that his tenure has been marked by weakness and retreat.
Speaking on Wednesday at the graduation ceremonies of the US Military Academy at West Point, New York - the same forum at which his predecessor, George W Bush, set forth his doctrine of military pre-emption nine months before invading Iraq - Obama insisted that the United States remains the world's "indispensable nation" but emphasized that military force should be used only
under very limited circumstances.
"Here's my bottom line," he told the cadets, some of whom may soon be deployed to Afghanistan from which Obama announced on Tuesday he intends to withdraw all US combat troops by the end of 2016. "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 US 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," he declared.
"... I would betray my duty to you, and to the country we love, if I sent you into harm's way simply because I saw a problem somewhere in the world that needed fixing, or because I was worried about critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak," he said.
Citing terrorism as the "the most direct threat to America at home and abroad ... for the foreseeable future," he argued that "a strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naive and unsustainable."
In that context, he stressed the importance of building the capacity of local security forces and announced he will ask Congress to provide US$5 billion to a proposed Counter-Terrorism Partnership Fund (CTPF).
And he devoted much of his speech to the importance of bolstering and relying on international institutions in dealing with geo-political crises and global challenges, including global warming.
"Skeptics often downplay the effectiveness of multilateral action. For them, working through international institutions, or respecting international law, is a sign of weakness. I think they're wrong," he said, citing what he depicted as Washington's successes in isolating Russia after Moscow's annexation of Crimea and in building a great-power coalition that is negotiating curbs on Iran's nuclear program.
"This is American leadership. This is American strength," he declared, adding that Washington must also strengthen institutions, notably the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the United Nations, that can anticipate and prevent crises.
He also stressed that Washington's influence in the world "is always stronger when we lead by example".
While he insisted that he believed in "American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being", he said "We cannot exempt ourselves from the rules that apply to everyone else ... [W]hat makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it's our willingness to affirm them through our actions," he said, adding that he will continue his efforts to close the Guantanamo detention facility.
Wednesday's speech came amidst what has appeared to be a growing number of international crises - ranging from Russia's intervention in Ukraine and growing tensions between China and its US-backed neighbors in the South and East China seas to the ongoing civil war in Syria and the proliferation of al-Qaeda affiliates, including Nigeria's Boko Haram, across the Middle East and North Africa.
Obama's domestic critics and some foreign allies, such as Saudi Arabia, Israel, and France, have argued that Washington has been too passive in reacting to these events.
That criticism was repeated on Wednesday after Obama's speech by Senator John McCain, who accused the president of "attacking straw men" by "suggesting that the only alternative to his policies is the unilateral use of military force everywhere".
"The real choice is how to combine our tools of soft power and hard power in order to avoid conflict, secure our interests and ideals, and meet our challenges through effective deterrence and diplomacy," Obama's 2008 Republican rival said, listing the various crises of the last few months. "None of these challenges are the fault of our president, but nothing he has done has been sufficient to address them.
"There is a growing perception worldwide that America is unreliable, distracted, and unwilling to lead. Our nation's capacity is not in question, but our resolve and judgement are. Speeches alone did not cause this dangerous development, and more speeches will not correct it," McCain said.
Analysts who have generally been more sympathetic to Obama's approach also expressed some disappointment with the speech.
"The speech was strongest on what our foreign policy should not be. It should not be isolationist and it should not be military driven," said Bruce Jentleson, a former senior State Department official under both Obama and Bill Clinton (1993-2001), who teaches at Duke University.
"At a time in which the world is in flux, we really need to think in terms of core strategic constructs like how to adapt deterrence, what are the requisites of coercive diplomacy and what does it really take to build partnerships not just on our part but on the part of others," he said. "In these and other respects it dodges the really tough questions."
Stephen Walt, a Harvard professor and one of the deans of the realism school of international relations, said the speech's focus on terrorism suggested that the administration remains a prisoner of Bush's paradigm.
"More than anything else, I thought the speech unwittingly underscored the degree to which the war on terror, the continued reliance on Special Forces, drones, etcetera, and the preoccupation with lesser but vivid dangers as opposed to more serious long-term problems, continue to drive the administration's approach to national security policy," he told IPS.
"Apart from the distinct threat of nuclear terrorism, the conventional terrorism danger to Americans is trivial ... Yet he felt compelled to talk about it and to pony up another $5 billion to train militaries in places we don't understand."
Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson (retired), who served as former secretary of state Colin Powell's long-time chief of staff and now teaches at William & Mary University, largely agreed with Walt.
"This concentration on a less-then-existential threat at the expense of more concrete and possibly formidable threats is wrong-headed and, at least in part, a product of the terrorism-industrial complex we have constructed and that Obama seems unable to escape," he told IPS in an email exchange.
"What passes for counter-terrorism help today seems a lot like what used to pass for assistance to fight communism during the Cold War," he noted. "All manner of leaders, dictators prominent among them, used to pay lip service to anti-communist efforts while enriching themselves, staying in power, and oppressing their own people with our assistance as their main support for doing so."
Human Rights Watch and Human Rights First, while praising Obama's renewed commitment to close Guantanamo and respect international law, expressed concern that the proposed CTPF could benefit abusive governments and security forces.
Obama addressed some of those concerns in reference to US drone strikes against alleged high-value al-Qaeda targets and efforts to prevent civilian casualties. "We must not create more enemies than we take off the battlefield," he said.
Jim Lobe's blog on US foreign policy can be read at Lobelog.com.