Under fire from the left and the right for its handling of foreign policy, the Obama administration is about to go on the attack with a high-profile speech at West Point designed to show that it has plans in place to deal with Islamist militants in Afghanistan, Syria, and Africa.
The speech Wednesday is unlikely to satisfy hawks in Congress who have pressed the White House to send more weaponry to Syria’s beleaguered rebels, provide more military assistance to Ukraine during its standoff with Russia, and leave a larger troop presence in Afghanistan to help prevent an al Qaeda resurgence there. But the new initiatives, which rely heavily on training forces in partner nations, may serve to combat the critique that the White House is doing nothing as the world smolders. Taken together, they also highlight what has emerged as the centerpiece of administration’s view of foreign policy: act through proxies whenever possible to minimize the chances of sparking a costly and bloody open-ended conflict and set modest goals that stay away from the sweeping — and ultimately unfulfilled — ambitions of the George W. Bush years.
One of the most significant announcements, expected to be delivered on Wednesday, is the president’s commitment to provide additional support to the Syrian opposition and Syria’s neighbors. According to reports, the administration will increase its train-and-equip efforts with the Syrian opposition. While such an initiative is unlikely to mollify Obama’s toughest critics, like Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), it has won rare praise from officials in the Syrian opposition.
For months, opposition leaders have requested more powerful weapons, like shoulder-fired missiles capable of downing enemy aircraft, and training in order to defend against the regime’s superior firepower and combat extremist rebel groups operating inside the country. Pentagon and CIA officials, by contrast, have worried that the weapons could fall into Islamist hands and eventually be used against the West. The CIA has been trying to figure out a way around that problem by using fingerprint scanners and GPS devices.
While it’s unclear what level of support the administration will provide to the rebels, Syrian opposition members, who met with the administration recently, praised the new program. "This is potentially a momentous occasion," Oubai Shahbandar, spokesman for the opposition Syrian Coalition, told Foreign Policy. "Expanded training was part of the overall request by opposition forces … We have cause to be cautiously optimistic."
Others in Congress are less sanguine. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he’s not holding his breath for more lethal aid to reach the rebels. "The hype is never followed by reality," he said in an interview. "We did nothing when the Syrian killing fields were in their infancy so we’ll wait to see what happens."
But that’s not the only initiative the administration is rolling out for reporters ahead of the speech. In North and West Africa, the U.S. is sending Special Forces troops to train elite counterterrorism units in Libya, Niger, Mauritania and Mali. The hope is to establish in-country units that can deal with terror threats, such as the one posed by the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram, which kidnapped almost 300 Nigerian girls last month. The African fighters will be trained by members of the Army’s Green Berets and Delta Force and financed by a classified Pentagon account, according to The New York Times. Overall, the initiative is in line with the president’s goal of avoiding costly land wars in favor of training allies to develop their own counterterrorism capabilities.
Another big announcement ahead of the president’s speech pertains to the U.S. withdrawal in Afghanistan. The president vowed on Tuesday that the American combat mission would be over by 2014. At the same time, he made clear that a force of 9,800 would remain in the country beyond 2014 for the purposes of training Afghan forces and supporting counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda. "Now we’re finishing the job we started," said Obama in a speech in the White House Rose Garden.
It was another decision in line with Obama’s preference to train rather than fight, but it satisfied neither the hawks nor the doves in Congress.
"After thirteen years at war, it’s obvious that there is no military solution in Afghanistan and it is far past time to end the war and bring all of our troops home now" said Rep. Barbara Lee, a progressive Democrat from California. "At the very least, Congress should debate and vote on this agreement that will keep our troops in Afghanistan for years to come and will cost billions more in spending."
While many conservative Republicans praised Obama’s decision to leave a residual force beyond 2014, such as Corker, some criticized his decision to telegraph a withdrawal date.
"Holding this mission to an arbitrary egg-timer doesn’t make a lick of sense strategically," said Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, in a statement. "We leave when the Afghans can manage that threat, rather than on convenient political deadlines that favor poll numbers over our security."
Other hawkish Democrats, meanwhile, rebuked criticisms from the right. "Frankly the Republicans will criticize him no matter what he does," said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "If he picked up all the troops and left, they’d criticize him. If he leaves at a certain date, they’d criticize him. If he said he’ll leave the troops there and decide on a date later, they’d criticize him for being indecisive."
While Congress has been highly critical of Obama’s restrained foreign policy approach, a slate of recent polling has shown the public favors a less interventionist approach by large margins. In late April, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that almost half of people surveyed want the U.S. to be "less active on the global stage." Meanwhile, fewer than one-fifth called for more aggressive engagement.
This post has been updated.