The national security strategy that President Barack Obama outlined Wednesday during the commencement ceremony at the U.S. Military Academy captured the state of global affairs and the mood of the nation. The president said the United States needs to be smarter about committing military force and more engaged diplomatically to spread the responsibility for maintaining order.
The president's biggest applause line at West Point, N.Y., came when he noted the class of 2014 was the first in a decade not to face the crush of deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq. It was a clear-eyed vision from the commander in chief that drew the right distinctions between pursuing adventurism and preserving national security.
Obama defended his record and offered a view of the decisionmaking that will drive his foreign policy in the final years of his administration. The president said it is time to shift the nation's attention and resources away from 13 years of war in Afghanistan and toward emerging terrorist threats in the Middle East and Africa. He called for Congress to approve a multibillion-dollar counterterrorism initiative and renewed efforts to promote global security through alliances, collective action and international law.
The speech came a day after the president announced he would retain U.S. troops in Afghanistan through 2016. The 32,000 U.S. troops there now would be reduced to 9,800 by year's end, and to about 4,900 by the end of 2015. Troop levels would drop after that to retain only a residual force into 2016.
While it is prudent to wind down the American presence, it's unclear what these small numbers could achieve and why the United States should remain at all. As the president said this week, Afghans need to be responsible for their own security. The challenges Obama framed at West Point pose new demands on the military in far-reaching corners of the world.
The president is realistic about the nation's capacity to resolve crises around the globe. His approach does not abandon a unilateral military option but makes it less likely as the United States builds greater problem-solving capacity within the international community.
This message was well-received Wednesday by the people who will carry it out — the next crop of America's military leaders. It's not aggressive enough for some of his critics, but Obama is right: America needs a policy that does "not create more enemies than we take off the battlefield."
His address Wednesday is a start in that direction.