Obama prepares to revamp agenda on foreign policy

Doug Mills/New York Times/File

WASHINGTON — President Obama, seeking to answer criticism that he has forsaken America’s leadership role, plans to lay out a retooled foreign policy agenda Wednesday that could deepen the nation’s involvement in Syria but would still steer clear of major military conflicts.

In a commencement address at the US Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., Obama will seek, yet again, to articulate his view of the proper US response to a cascade of crises, from Syria’s civil war to Russia’s incursions in Ukraine, according to a senior administration official who is helping draft the speech.

Sketching familiar arguments but on a broader canvas, Obama will stress his determination to chart a middle course between isolationism and military intervention. The United States, he said, should be at the fulcrum of efforts to curb aggression by Russia and China, though not at the price of “fighting in eight or nine proxy wars.”


“It’s a case for interventionism but not overreach,” Benjamin J. Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, said in an interview. “We are leading, we are the only country that leads, but that leadership has to be in service of an international system.”

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Obama, however, will emphasize Syria’s growing status as a haven for terrorist groups, some of which are linked to Al Qaeda, officials said. That could open the door to greater US support for the rebels, including heavier weapons, though no decisions have been made.

The president’s speech will kick off an intense, administration-wide effort to counter critics who say the United States is lurching from crisis to crisis, without a grand plan for dealing with a treacherous world. While such critiques slight Obama’s accomplishments, Rhodes said, he conceded the president had not put his priorities, from climate change to the nuclear talks with Iran, into a comprehensive framework.

Obama plans to elaborate on his ideas during a trip to Europe in early June. Over the next few weeks, the White House will roll out issue-specific speeches from Secretary of State John F. Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and other senior officials.

“We understand that there are a lot of questions swirling around not just our foreign policy but America’s role in the world,” Rhodes said. “People are seeing the trees, but we’re not necessarily laying out the forest.”


The trouble is, as Obama takes a stage where his predecessors have signaled new directions in foreign policy — George W. Bush used a West Point speech in 2002 to revive the principle of preemptive military strikes — his ideas are likely to have a familiar ring.

In a speech on terrorism last year, he warned of an arc of Islamic extremism stretching from the Middle East to North Africa, which he said was the successor to the Al Qaeda threat in Afghanistan and Pakistan that was fought with troops and drones.

The president’s calibrated rationale for military intervention will draw on a speech he gave in 2011 justifying US backing for NATO airstrikes on Libya. And his broad definition of America’s responsibilities as a global power will inevitably echo the principles he outlined in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2009.

Critics are also likely to argue that Obama’s words have not been backed up by actions. Administration officials, for example, have long promised to bolster support for Syrian rebels. But they have so far refused to supply them with antiaircraft missiles because they fear that these weapons could fall into the hands of extremists.

Obama’s anguished response to Syria has hung over the White House and fueled critics who say the president’s foreign policy is rudderless: He threatened, then pulled back on, a missile strike against Syria for its use of chemical weapons and resisted pleas for greater US involvement, even as the death toll rises above 160,000.


“I realized last night that the administration has no policy in Syria, has no strategy in Syria,” Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, said Wednesday. He had just attended a White House wine-and-cheese reception to discuss foreign policy, a gathering he described as “very bizarre.”

The president’s speech will kick off an intense, administration-wide effort to counter critics who say the US is lurching from crisis to crisis.

Denis R. McDonough, White House chief of staff, said he and Susan E. Rice, the national security adviser, invited Corker and other senators because national security issues are going to loom large in coming weeks and the administration wanted to consult Congress. “I thought we had a good back-and-forth,” he said.