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Obama Auditions Foreign Policy Speech Before Graduating Cadets


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block. President Obama says he wants to ramp up support for opposition forces in Syria. That could include weapons and training provided by the U.S. military. We'll hear more about his reasoning ahead. Obama made the call today in a commencement speech at West Point. NPR's Scott Horsley reports the president also used the speech to defend his broader approach to foreign-policy.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Obama told the West Point graduates the global landscape is changing two and a half years after the last American troops left Iraq and with the combat mission in Afghanistan quickly drawing to a close.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You are the first class to graduate since 9/11, who may not be sent into combat in Iraq or Afghanistan.


HORSLEY: But Obama says there's no shortage of new challenges including Russian aggression, the flexing of China's muscles, and most threatening of all - terrorists, who are now widely if thinly scattered from southern Asia to Western Africa.


OBAMA: So we have to develop a strategy that matches this diffuse threat, one that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military too thin.

HORSLEY: Obama wants to put up to $5 billion that the government won't be spending in Afghanistan next year into a new fund for fighting terrorism. He also pledged to work with Congress to provide additional support for the Syrian rebels. Aides described today's speech as a chance for Obama to spell out his overall approach to foreign-policy, an approach that hasn't changed much during his five and a half years in office. Much of today's speech echoed what the president said when he received the Nobel Peace Prize. He won't hesitate to act on his own to defend the U.S. and its allies, he said. But in the face of lesser threats, he prefers to work in concert with others.


OBAMA: Now there are a lot of folks, a lot of skeptics who often downplay the effectiveness of multilateral action. For them, working through international institutions like the UN or respecting international law is a sign of weakness. I think they're wrong.

HORSLEY: Obama told the cadets even the world's strongest military can't solve every problem. Just because we have the best hammer, he said, does not mean every problem is a nail.


OBAMA: Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint, but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences.

HORSLEY: The backlash against the Iraq war helped propel Obama into office. And he said one of his main goals is to avoid repeating that kind of error. But critics complain Obama is sometimes too restrained in Syria, for example, or most recently in Ukraine. Today, the president tried to turn that criticism on its head pointing to Ukraine and the big turnout in last weekend's election there as a vindication of his approach.


OBAMA: Working with international institutions has given a chance for the Ukrainian people to choose their future without us firing a shot.

HORSLEY: Obama will elaborate on these ideas next week when he travels to Poland, meets with G-7 leaders and marks the anniversary of the Allied landing on D-Day. Obama told the newly minted military officers the question is not whether America will continue to lead in the coming century, but how. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.