President Obama gives the commencement address at graduation and commissioning for the class of 2014 at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., on Wednesday. (Mike Morones/Staff)
President Obama affirmed Wednesday that the U.S. will use military force when necessary, but “the threshold for military action must be higher” for crises that do not pose a direct threat to the U.S.
“For the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America at home and abroad remains terrorism,” Obama told the graduating class of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on Wednesday. “But a strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naive and unsustainable. I believe we must shift our counterterrorism strategy — drawing on the successes and shortcomings of our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan — to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold.”
In his wide-ranging commencement address, Obama outlined several steps his administration is planning to work with allies to combat terrorism, including asking Congress to establish a $5 billion fund to train and equip partner nations to fight al-Qaida.
“These resources will give us flexibility to fulfill different missions, including training security forces in Yemen who have gone on the offensive against al-Qaida; supporting a multinational force to keep the peace in Somalia; working with European allies to train a functioning security force and border patrol in Libya; and facilitating French operations in Mali,” he said.
Obama also pledged that a “critical focus” of his counterterrorism effort will be Syria, where al-Qaida fighters are pitted against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Iran and Hezbollah.
“I will work with Congress to ramp up support for those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists and a brutal dictator,” he said. “We will continue to coordinate with our friends and allies in Europe and the Arab World — to push for a political resolution of this crisis, and make sure that those countries, and not just the United States, are contributing their fair share of support to the Syrian people.”
Obama did not specify which Syrian opposition groups might receive U.S. aid, nor did he address recent media reports that Syrian rebels have already been receiving U.S. training and U.S.-made weaponry, such as TOW anti-tank missiles.
One option under consideration is having the U.S. military train the “moderate” Syrian opposition, a senior administration official said after Obama’s speech on Wednesday.
“Not only do we want to increase the assistance we provide to the Syrian opposition but we do want to have this discussion with Congress about the potential for there to be a role for the U.S. military in that effort,” the official told reporters during a conference call.
Congress would need to authorize any such training mission, the official said. Sen Carl Levin, D-Mich., has introduced an amendment to the proposed Fiscal 2015 National Defense Authorization Act that would do precisely that.
The U.S. government has no plans for the U.S. military to conduct operations inside Syria, the official said.
“We’re talking specifically about assistance to the opposition; we’re not talking about activities within Syria by the United States military — that is not something we are contemplating,” the official said.
Critics claim that Obama undermined U.S. credibility — and encouraged Russia, China and others to challenge the U.S. — when he did not launch airstrikes against Syria last year after the Assad regime crossed Obama’s self-proclaimed “red line” by reportedly launching a widespread chemical weapons attack.
But Obama countered on Wednesday that the Syrian crisis does not have a military solution.
“As president, I made a decision that we should not put American troops into the middle of this increasingly sectarian civil war; I believe that is the right decision,” he 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. In helping those who fight for the right of all Syrians to choose their own future, we also push back against the growing number of extremists who find safe-haven in the chaos.”
However, not all national security issues facing the U.S. involve armed conflict, Obama said. That is why the U.S. will work with Asian nations to create a code of conduct in the South China Sea, where China has been pushing its territorial claims into waters claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam and other neighbors. Recently, Vietnam claimed a Chinese vessel rammed and sank one of its fishing boats.
In order to press China on maritime disputes, the U.S. must lead by example, and that includes ratifying the Law of the Sea Convention, Obama said.
“I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being,” he said. “But what 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. That’s why I will continue to push to close Gitmo — because American values and legal traditions don’t permit the indefinite detention of people beyond our borders.
While taking great pains to outline the full range of options his administration will use to resolve international crises, Obama also made clear that the U.S. will not shrink from conflict if it is threatened.
“It is absolutely true that in the 21st century, American isolationism is not an option,” he said. “We don’t have a choice to ignore what happens beyond our borders. If nuclear materials are not secure, that could pose a danger in American cities. As the Syrian civil war spills across borders, the capacity of battle-hardened groups to come after us increases. Regional aggression that goes unchecked — in southern Ukraine, the South China Sea, or anywhere else in the world — will ultimately impact our allies, and could draw in our military. We can’t ignore what happens beyond our boundaries.”