WASHINGTON – Confronting critics of his foreign policy, President Barack Obama will soon outline a strategy for his final years in office that aims to avoid overreach as the second of the two wars he inherited comes to a close.
The president’s commencement address Wednesday at the U.S. Military Academy will come amid growing frustration in the White House with Republicans and other critics who contend that Obama has weakened America’s standing around the world and faltered on problems across the Middle East and in Russia, China and elsewhere.
That criticism has mounted over the past year following Obama’s decision to pull back a military strike in Syria and his inability to stop Russia from annexing territory from Ukraine. A White House official said Obama would specifically address both situations, as well as the status of ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran.
The president is also expected to discuss how he views shifts in the counterterrorism threat from al-Qaida and other groups, according to the official, who insisted on anonymity to preview the president’s speech.
Obama came into office vowing to end the lengthy American-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and seeking to keep a war-weary nation out of unnecessary conflicts. The war in Iraq ended in the closing days of 2011 and the Afghan conflict will formally conclude later this year, though the White House is seeking to keep a smaller contingent of U.S. troops behind to train Afghan forces and conduct counterterrorism missions.
Some foreign policy analysts argue that Obama’s aversion to military action makes it harder for the U.S. to levy credible threats that force international foes to change their behavior.
“He’s far too risk-adverse a president,” said Aaron David Miller, a Middle East adviser to Republican and Democratic administrations. “And in a world where no one will lead except America, he has abdicated and surrendered much of the leadership.”
The White House official said Obama will argue that the U.S. remains the only nation capable of galvanizing action and will make the case that American power needs to be part of a sustainable international system. He will argue that his foreign policy philosophy is not isolationist, but rather “interventionist and internationalist,” according to the official.
The president is expected to expand on remarks he made last month at a news conference in the Philippines, when his frustration with his critics boiled over. He specifically targeted those who are quick to call for U.S. military action, arguing that they had failed to learn the lessons of the Iraq war.
“Why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force after we’ve just gone through a decade of war at enormous costs to our troops and to our budget?” he said. “And what is it exactly that these critics think would have been accomplished?”
Ahead of the president’s speech, Obama’s top advisers have been holding private meetings with congressional lawmakers to address their specific foreign policy concerns. However, the outreach appeared to accomplish little, according to some participants, with a Republican senator calling one meeting “bizarre” and another lawmaker saying the White House refused to provide specific answers to questions.
Republican Sen. Bob Corker was among those who participated in the White House meetings. In an interview, he questioned how much Obama’s speech can accomplish in shifting the way the White House’s foreign policy approach is viewed.
“One of the problems with the White House is that they view speeches as foreign policy,” Corker said. “They don’t really follow through with much in the way of substance. It’s always minimal.”
The White House official said Obama will build on his remarks during an early June trip to Europe, where he’ll give a speech about the U.S. commitment to the continent while in Poland and meet with Group of Seven leaders in Brussels. Obama’s top foreign policy advisers, including Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and national security adviser Susan Rice, are expected to follow the president’s address with events of their own, according to the White House official.