America must always lead on world stage: Obama

Washington: America’s military might should be used unilaterally only when its people or interests or the security of its allies are directly threatened, President Barack Obama has said in a major speech defending his foreign policy.

“Here’s my bottom line: America must always lead on the world stage. If we don’t, no one else will … But US military action cannot be the only - or even primary - component of our leadership in every instance,” he said in a speech to the West Point graduating class of 2014 that included a pledge to aid Syrian opposition groups.

Mr Obama used the speech as a robust defence of a foreign policy that has been criticised as weak and contributing to instability around the world. He said those “suggest that America is in decline, or has seen its global leadership slip away - are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics”.

Mr Obama sought to differentiate his foreign policy from both “interventionists” of the left and right and from isolationists.

“Each side can point to history to support its claims,” Mr Obama said. “But I believe neither view fully speaks to the demands of this moment. It is absolutely true that in the 21st century, American isolationism is not an option … But to say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution.

“When crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction but do not directly threaten us, then the threshold for military action must be higher,” he said. In these cases he argued that America should seek to build coalitions rather “go it alone”.

“In such circumstances, we have to work with others because collective action in these circumstances is more likely to succeed, more likely to be sustained, less likely to lead to costly mistakes,” he said.

The President said terrorism remained America’s gravest security threat and that though the al-Qaeda centralised leadership had been largely defeated, its affiliates had not.

“This lessens the possibility of large-scale 9/11-style attacks against the homeland, but it heightens the danger of US personnel overseas being attacked, as we saw in Benghazi.”

He said to counter that threat America needed to shift its strategy to work more effectively with partners and allies in regions where terrorist networks flourished rather simply deploying American military power.

He called on Congress to back a $US5 billion “Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund” to be used to help allies in their own fight against terrorism.

“These resources will give us flexibility to fulfil different missions, including training security forces in Yemen who’ve gone on the offensive against al-Qaeda, supporting a multinational force to keep the peace in Somalia, working with European allies to train a functioning security force and border patrol in Libya, and facilitating French operations in Mali.”

Mr Obama defended his decision not to send troops into Syria but said he would increase aid to opposition groups and to Syria’s neighbours to help the support massive Syrian refugee populations.

The President is also considering sending a limited number of US troops to Jordan as part of a regional training mission that would instruct carefully vetted members of the Free Syrian Army on tactics, including counterterrorism operations, AP reported, citing unnamed administration officials.

On Tuesday the President announced the US would leave 9800 US troops in Afghanistan for counter-terrorism operations and to support Afghan forces after the US combat mission finishes at the end of this year.

That number will reduce even further in 2015 and the White House plans to have a normal diplomatic presence in Afghanistan by 2016.

The Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Ed Royce welcomed the "new focus" on Syria but said the President lacked credibility around the world.

"Since President Obama took office, a series of foreign policy plans and visions have been put forward; assurances have been made. But too often, strong words have been followed by weak actions, or no actions," he said. "The result has been a general loss of US credibility, making successful foreign policy nearly impossible. President Obama's diplomatic efforts cannot work if our allies lack confidence in US commitments, and our opponents do not fear US warnings."

This story America must always lead on world stage: Obama first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.