President Barack Obama on Wednesday (May 28) charted a vision for protecting America that relies less on military power and more on training foreign security forces to fight on their own soil. His context: Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have taught American leaders about the power — and limits — of US military options.
The US still has a vital interest in dismantling terror networks and havens, the president said. Terrorism remains “the most direct threat to America at home and abroad.” But “a strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naive and unsustainable.” No argument there.
Instead, Obama told graduating West Point cadets, “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.”
He invoked battlegrounds or sectarian conflicts on which he’d seek to spend money: He said he would ask Congress to approve up to $5 billion to bolster Syrian rebels, train security forces in Yemen, help the French quell terrorists in Mali, support a multinational force to keep the peace in Somalia and work with European allies to secure Libya. He talked about Western efforts to isolate Russia—but not about strengthening Ukraine’s military.
What Obama can’t know is what country or region will join that list in the coming hours, days or weeks. Or what that surprise may require of America’s military, its diplomatic corps, its citizens. The world has a way of wrecking the grand visions of leaders who expect it to conform to their carefully formulated foreign policy doctrines.
Possible case in point: Afghanistan. On Tuesday, Obama proposed to keep 9,800 U.S. troops there after year’s end, to help train Afghan security forces and mount counterterrorism operations against a still-potent Taliban. That’s a smart move that this page has supported.
However . . . Obama also promised that all US troops would be withdrawn by the end of 2016. Then Afghan forces will be “fully responsible” for Afghan security. We think that timetable needs an asterisk: Depends on conditions on the ground.
What happens if military leaders tell Obama in 2016 that closing US bases will cripple their ability to devastate terror havens and target plotters? What if a future Afghan president urgently requests continued US military backup?
We don’t know if Afghan forces can hold their own against the Taliban after the US leaves. The end of 2016 is undiscovered territory, a world impossible to fully imagine or anticipate.
Obama’s speech will be parsed in capitals around the world (including Washington), as friend and foe gauge the president’s inclination to send aid or to let conflicts burn on their own.
We’re sure Obama realizes that Wednesday’s foreign policy pronouncement has a limited shelf life. By this time next year, a fresh field of presidential candidates will be touting their agendas. They’ll debate the use of force, how to battle terror and protect America—in short, how to build on Obama’s successes and avoid his failures.
(C) 2014 CHICAGO TRIBUNE/DISTRIBUTED BY MCT INFORMATION SERVICES
The above article is the editorial that appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Thursday, May 29.