WEST POINT, N.Y. — President Obama tried once more to articulate his vision of the American role in the world Wednesday, telling graduating cadets at the United States Military Academy that the nation they were being called to serve would seek to avoid military misadventures abroad, even as it confronts a new set of terrorist threats from the Middle East to Africa.
Speaking at the academy’s commencement, Obama disputed critics who say his cautious response to crises like Syria’s civil war and Russian aggression toward Ukraine had eroded US leadership in the world. Those critics, he said, were “either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics.”
But for a president who has promised to take the United States off a permanent war footing, Obama painted an unsettling portrait of the world, 13 years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The nation, he said, had, in effect, traded Al Qaeda in Afghanistan for a more diffuse threat from extremists in Syria, Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen, Mali, and other countries.
A day after announcing that the last US soldier will leave Afghanistan at the end of 2016, Obama told a new class of Army officers that some of them would be sent on murkier missions, helping endangered nations deal with their own terrorist groups.
In the only new policy announcement of the speech, he called on Congress to finance what he called a Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund, with up to $5 billion to provide training in these operations to vulnerable countries like Iraq, Lebanon, and Turkey, all neighbors of Syria.
“We have to develop a strategy that matches this diffuse threat; one that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military too thin, or stirs up local resentments,” Obama declared. “We need partners to fight terrorists alongside us.”
The president has spoken before about the threat from terrorism, most notably in a speech last May at the National Defense University. But on those occasions he had taken pains to note that the threat was on a lesser scale than the Sept. 11 attacks and could be dealt with “smartly and proportionately.”
On Wednesday, his language was more ominous: “For the foreseeable future,” he said, “the most direct threat to America at home and abroad remains terrorism.”
Obama singled out Syria, which he said was becoming a haven for extremists, a situation that his critics have attributed in part to his own unwillingness to take more aggressive action. While pledging to strengthen US support for the opposition — something he has done several times before — the president did not discuss expanding the CIA’s covert training program for Syrian rebels in Jordan, or perhaps bringing in the military, an option that is being discussed inside the administration.
A senior administration official said after the speech that the White House was consulting with Congress about ways to expand the military’s role in counterterrorism operations. But he declined to say whether the administration had decided on a bigger Pentagon role in Syria and noted there were other ways to help the opposition.
Little in Obama’s tone suggested he had dropped his reluctance to get involved militarily in Syria, a position that has not changed despite three years of war and a death toll above 160,000.
“I made a decision that we should not put American troops into the middle of this increasingly sectarian war, and I believe that is the right decision,” Obama said. “But that does not mean we shouldn’t help the Syrian people stand up against a dictator who bombs and starves his own people.”
Weeks in the drafting, the president’s speech was meant to be a wide-ranging rebuttal to critics who say he should have done more to curb the bloodshed in Syria or stop Russia’s takeover of Crimea. But it also rejected arguments that the United States should retreat from its post-World War II centrality in global affairs.
Obama instead called for a middle course between isolationism and overreach, citing the international coalition the United States had mobilized to counter Russia’s aggression in Ukraine as an example of how to use American muscle “without firing a shot.”