WEST POINT, N.Y. -- President Barack Obama laid out his vision Wednesday for a comprehensive post-9/11 foreign policy after more than a decade of war overseas, arguing for a new form of American leadership that strikes a balance between interventionism and "foreign entanglements."
Speaking in front of 1,000 cadets at the U.S. Military Academy commencement ceremony, Mr. Obama articulated an approach that he said would employ targeted force in a responsible fashion, including a new initiative aimed at responding to terrorist threats. He sought to blunt growing criticism from political rivals who have called his administration feckless in its response to global crises in Russia, Syria and elsewhere.
Many of the policies and postures had been outlined by the president and his aides previously on a piecemeal basis. But Wednesday's address was focused on pulling those strands together into a coherent, post-war outlook for U.S. foreign policy -- and was delivered to an audience of graduating cadets who are likely to be the first since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, not to be deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq.
Mr. Obama stressed the importance of nonmilitary options in addressing the world's challenges, as well as collective international action. Coming more than six years into a presidency devoted to winding down the wars, the speech featured a firm defense of his administration's handling of foreign crises -- including those in Nigeria, Syria and Ukraine -- and a suggestion that many critics are out of step with a nation tired from 13 years of war.
"Here's my bottom line: America must always lead," Mr. Obama said. "If we don't, no one else will. The military that you have joined is and always will be the backbone of that leadership. But U.S. military action cannot be the only -- or even the primary -- component of our leadership in every instance."
The White House hoped that the speech -- coming a day after Mr. Obama announced plans to significantly draw down U.S. forces in Afghanistan by year's end -- would mark a new phase in the administration's foreign policy and act as a counterweight to escalating critiques from the left and right calling on him to be more assertive abroad.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Mr. Obama's 2008 presidential challenger and one of Capitol Hill's most vocal hawks, attacked the West Point address as insufficient response to global threats and argued that Mr. Obama mischaracterized his foes as clamoring for military conflict. "It is unfortunate that the president once again fell back on his familiar tactic of attacking straw-men, posturing as the voice of reason between extremes, and suggesting that the only alternative to his policies is the unilateral use of military force everywhere," he said. "Literally no one is proposing that, and it is intellectually dishonest to suggest so."
But Mr. Obama's speech appeared to be less about changing the terms of the foreign policy debate in Washington than about appealing to a war-weary electorate, which twice chose him as president on platforms of steady withdrawal from foreign military operations.
Polls show public support waning for direct U.S. military intervention in international conflicts; parents applauded Wednesday when Mr. Obama noted that the cadets in attendance may not have to serve in Iraq or Afghanistan. At the same time, public approval of Mr. Obama's handling of foreign affairs has dropped in recent polls. Critics have charged that the administration has not projected a clear and strong response to the Russian invasion of Crimea, Syria's use of chemical weapons and a terror group's abduction of hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls.
In response, Mr. Obama called upon Congress to back a new $5 billion "Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund" to answer evolving terrorist threats around the world, emphasizing that "for the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America at home and abroad remains terrorism."
One critical focus of the effort, he said, would be the crisis in Syria, where three years of civil war have left more than 150,000 people dead and much of the country in ruins. White House officials said the additional resources would let the United States step up efforts to support countries bordering Syria, which have had to take in refugees and confront terrorists, and help train and support rebel forces fighting the Bashar Assad regime.
"The partnership I've described does not eliminate the need to take direct action when necessary to protect ourselves," Mr. Obama warned. "When we have actionable intelligence, that's what we do."
But he said direct actions must conform with U.S. values. "That means taking strikes only when we face a continuing, imminent threat, and only where there is near certainty of no civilian casualties," he said. "For our actions should meet a simple test: We must not create more enemies than we take off the battlefield."
The president made clear the costs of sending U.S. forces into a conflict zone. Gazing out at the uniformed rows of graduating cadets, he recalled his visit to the academy in 2009, when he announced a surge of forces in Afghanistan, and said four cadets who graduated that day five years ago "gave their lives in that effort."
"I believe America's security demanded those deployments. But I am haunted by those deaths," he said. "... And I would betray my duty to you and to the country we love if I ever sent you into harm's way simply because I saw a problem somewhere in the world that needed to be fixed, or because I was worried about critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak."
A counterterrorism strategy "that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naive and unsustainable," he added. "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."
"I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being," Mr. Obama said, but added, "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."