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Obama To Use West Point Speech To Lay Out Foreign Policy Doctrine


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene. President Obama delivers the commencement address at West Point today. Aides say he'll lay out a broad vision for foreign policy and America's role in the world. Among the foreign policy challenges facing the president of late, Russia's annexation of Crimea and China's provocative moves in Asia. The president will try to describe a coherent approach to those challenges. But as NPR's Scott Horsley reports, this might not be an out-right Obama doctrine.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Obama came into office determined to end two long, costly wars. The last American troops left Iraq two and a half years ago, and yesterday, Obama detailed the endgame for Afghanistan. A reduced force of some 9,800 Americans will stay behind when the combat mission ends later this year. But half of those will leave by the end of 2015, and nearly all U.S. troops will be out of the country by the time this president leaves office.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It's time to turn the page on more than a decade in which so much of our foreign policy was focused on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

HORSLEY: Today, Obama will address the cadets at West Point about what comes next. The president has drawn criticism for his cautious response to a number of foreign crises - including Syria, where he telegraphed, then abandoned a possible military strike, and Crimea, where his warnings to Russia went unheeded. Republican senators like Lindsey Graham, use words such as tepid, timid and ineffective, to describe Obama's approach.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: The president has an uncanny ability of basically underestimating every crisis and being late.

HORSLEY: And it's not just republicans who complain. Recent polls show roughly half of all Americans disapprove of the president's handling of foreign policy. Obama's natural inclination is to study, and keep options open as long as possible. But Foreign Policy magazine publisher David Rothkopf says, too often what the world sees is indecision.

DAVID ROTHKOPF: A lot of the time, in the past couple of years, we have seen ourselves wrestling with choices and then not making them - or making them too slowly, or doing too little. And the upshot of that have been outcomes that are unsatisfactory to us.

HORSLEY: At a press conference in Manila last month, Obama defended his cautious approach.


OBAMA: It avoids errors. You hit singles. You hit doubles. Every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run. But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world.

HORSLEY: That's a pretty big come-down for the Nobel Peace Prize winner who came into office with lofty goals such as reshaping relations with the Muslim world. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters on Air Force One, today's speech is a chance for the president to offer some perspective.


BEN RHODES: What we want to do is step back, and put all of these different events into the context of, how does America lead in the world? And how do we strike that balance between not getting overextended, as we were in Iraq, but ensuring that we are leading the international community?

HORSLEY: It's far from clear that Americans are willing to pay the cost that comes with leadership. A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll last month found 47 percent think the U.S. should be less active in world affairs, while just 19 percent want the country to be more active. Republican Lindsey Graham says that's not surprising but not realistic, either.


GRAHAM: I know America is weary of an out-of-control, dangerous world and would like to disengage. Disengagement by America is never an option in dangerous times.

HORSLEY: Obama agrees the U.S. should not turn to isolationism. But he also argues against unilateral action, unlike his predecessor, George W. Bush, who used his own West Point address a dozen years ago, to spell out a doctrine of preemptive military strikes. Obama argues the right policy is both interventionist and internationalist. That's the doctrine he'll try to define today, as the U.S. begins a new chapter in its engagement with the world. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

GREENE: Now, after the president speaks at West Point, he will speak to our colleague Steve Inskeep. You'll hear about Steve's interview throughout the day from NPR News, and the interview will air on the program tomorrow. 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.