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President Barack Obama delivered a broad defense of his foreign policy strategy Wednesday, arguing that neither isolationism nor interventionism “view fully speak to the demands of this moment” in global politics.
“America must always lead on the world stage. If we don't, no one else will,” he said at the United States Military Academy at West Point. “But U.S. military action cannot be the only - or even primary - component of our leadership in every instance.”
The president has faced increasing criticism for his strategy in handling crises in Syria and Ukraine, and his administration has struggled with its relationships around the globe in the wake of NSA leaker Edward Snowden’s revelations about U.S. intelligence practices. The latest Wall Street Journal/ NBC News poll showed that only 38 percent of Americans approve of his foreign policy performance.
Obama said Wednesday that the United States will use military force “unilaterally if necessary, when our core interests demand it - when our people are threatened; when our livelihood is at stake; or when the security of our allies is in danger.”
But, he added, “when issues of global concern that do not pose a direct threat to the United States are at stake - when crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction - then the threshold for military action must be higher.”
On Syria, Obama said that the United States will increase aid to Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq as they handle an influx of refugees fleeing the civil war.
“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 added. “And 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.”
In his remarks, Obama also laid out plans for a $5 billion “Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund” designed to help train other nations to combat terrorism and provide assistance to secure and stabilize regions where extremist groups thrive.
And he pledged greater transparency about intelligence practices at a time when his administration has come under fire from civil liberties advocates at home and from allies abroad.
"When we cannot explain our efforts clearly and publicly, we face terrorist propaganda and international suspicion; we erode legitimacy with our partners and our people; and we reduce accountability in our own government," he said.
Obama’s speech also comes the day after he announced plans to keep about 10,000 troops in Afghanistan after the end of this year but pull personnel out of the country by the end of his presidency. That proposal drew praise from some corners – including from House Speaker John Boehner and other influential Republicans – but it was derided by defense hawks like Sen. John McCain of Arizona as a strategic blunder and a politically motivated move.
While less than half of Americans approve of the president’s foreign policy performance, his focus on diplomacy and economic pressure as alternatives to military force appears to track with the role the public favors for America in the world.
A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that almost half – 47 percent – of Americans want the country to be less active in world affairs, with just 19 percent saying the U.S. should take a more active role.