WASHINGTON – After 5½ years as U.S. leader, President Barack Obama has brought troops home from Iraq, is winding down the Afghan war, has secured the death of Osama bin Laden — and has delivered many speeches defining his worldview.
Yet he still feels the need to make a new attempt to explain his foreign policy to Americans this week.
It’s a measure of the threats to his reputation as a statesman that Obama, who rode a willingness to talk to U.S. enemies such as Iran, avoid foreign quagmires and wage drone warfare to two presidential terms, is giving the speech at all.
Top aides say the speech at West Point military academy Wednesday will set out a broad foreign policy framework for a president who has resisted defining a personal diplomatic doctrine.
It will take place as Obama’s strategy of disengaging from Middle East wars and pivoting U.S. power to Asia is challenged by crises including sectarian mayhem in Syria, a revanchist Russia and a territorially belligerent China.
Obama’s critics have seized on the tumult to argue that the president is being outmaneuvered by authoritarian leaders like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.
He has also struggled to rebut claims his failure to strike Syria over chemical weapons use last year sent a message that the United States would let its “red lines” be crossed.
Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said Obama sees America at a turning point.
“Our foreign policy is going to look a lot different going forward than it did in the last decade when Iraq and Afghanistan really dominated the discussion,” Rhodes said.
There was an end-of-an-era feel to Obama’s surprise weekend trip to Afghanistan, where major combat operations end in seven months.
Aides also hinted that Obama will give some indications of the size of the post-2014 training force he is contemplating for Afghanistan in his speech.
He will explain his goals in the last years of his administration and “how our approach in hot spots like Ukraine, Iran and Syria fit into that construct,” a senior U.S. official said.
Obama believes his legacy lies in moving America on from the traumatic military and legal wars against terrorism sparked by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to a more sustainable security posture.
“What we want to do is step back and put all of these actions into the context of how does America lead in the world and how do we strike the balance between not getting overextended as we were in Iraq,” Rhodes said.
Obama is getting increasingly frustrated with his critics.
Privately, he has fumed that there is not appreciation that he has avoided errors like Iraq and publicly accuses his foes of being trigger-happy.
But critics like Bob Corker, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations committee, warn Obama’s desire to avoid errors means problems like Syria come back to haunt him.
“It’s a sweep-under-the-rug foreign policy, and I think that’s exacerbating the potential for conflict down the road,” Corker told a newspaper.
Other critics warn Obama’s problem is not a paucity of explanation but an unwillingness to wield a big stick.
After all, the president has made many eloquent speeches on foreign policy — from his Nobel address on the nature of war to a speech on drone policy last year.
But at times, his caution has been outpaced by events in conflict-hit places like Syria and Ukraine.
Kori Schake, who worked for former President George W. Bush’s National Security Council, warned that basing a foreign policy around avoiding error was insufficient.
“They are wrong that avoiding mistakes is the goal, and they are wrong that they have avoided mistakes,” Schake said, arguing that the administration’s reluctance to throw its wholehearted support behind the Syrian opposition made things worse.
But Obama supporters see the Republican critique as harking back to a day when an American president could dictate outcomes by simply talking tough.
Since then, U.S. interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have punctured perceptions of U.S. power and turned Americans against foreign wars.
Obama must also navigate a world that includes Russia’s challenge to the post-Cold War order, a rising China flexing its muscles, developing states grabbing a piece of the economic pie and a sectarian tide swamping borders in the Middle East.
Former State Department official Bruce Jentleson said Washington must find a balance between too much retrenchment — where Obama and libertarian conservatives sometimes fall — and the re-assertiveness of neoconservatives who have an overly bullish view of U.S. power.
“I think it is valid to say that this administration has not made major errors, but that is not sufficient for sustaining a successful foreign policy over two terms of a presidency,” he said.
Jentleson, now with Duke University and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said it is vital for U.S. security and “the legacy that President Obama wants to leave that some of these problems get better answers.”