President Obama Recasts U.S. Foreign Policy As International, Not Unilateral, Effort

Anti-government protesters march through the streets on March 8, 2014.

Anti-government protesters march through the streets on March 8, 2014.  (2014 Getty Images)

A day after he laid out his plan for ending the war in Afghanistan, and hours before the House is set to vote on U.S. sanctions against Venezuela, President Obama is recasting his controversial foreign policy approach as one that avoids unilateral overreach.

Obama's new approach includes $5 billion to help other countries fight terrorism and to expand funding for Defense Department intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, special operations and other activities.

Obama was to outline his plans Wednesday during a commencement address at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. The speech comes one day after the president put forward a blueprint for ending U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan by the time he leaves office.

"I'm confident that if we carry out this approach, we can not only responsibly end our war in Afghanistan and achieve the objectives that took us to war in the first place, we'll also be able to begin a new chapter in the story of American leadership around the world," Obama said Tuesday during an appearance in the White House Rose Garden.

Obama has come under fire by both Republicans and some in his own party for what they depict as an overly passive approach to conflicts in different parts of the world, most recently in Ukraine, Russia, Syria and Venezuela.

On Wednesday afternoon, the House is expected to vote on a bipartisan bill that instructs the Obama administration to compile a list of human rights abusers in the Venezuelan government, freeze their assets and ban them from the United States. Foreign relations committees in the House and Senate have overwhelmingly approved it.

Administration officials are opposed. They say sanctions risk undermining mediation efforts in Venezuela and straining relations between the U.S. and Latin American partners.

Earlier this month, Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Texas Democrat, said during House Foreign Affairs committee debate that the United States needed to take decisive steps against human rights violators around the world.

“One of our jobs around the world is to make sure we stand up for democracy and for human rights and that’s without regard for what kind of political leaders are perpetrating human rights abuses—whether it is a fascist dictator or a communist leader , we’ve got to stand up to them,” Castro said. “And too often we have not attended enough to issues in Latin America. There are things that happen in Latin America that if they had happened in another part of the world, we would jump on it more quickly.”

“We also can’t overlook that the history of the region and the fact that in the 1970s and 80s you had leaders who disappeared thousands and thousands of people throughout Latin America and we can never let that happen again,” he said. “So we have to be swift in condemning it and making sure that they know that the United States will take real action.”

Violent unrest has gripped Venezuela for months. Forty-two people have been killed since February.

Last week, South American governments denounced the effort by U.S. lawmakers to apply sanctions on Venezuela over human rights concerns.

Obama's efforts to pull the U.S. out of the lengthy and expensive conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have largely defined his foreign policy for much of his presidency. But he's at times struggled to articulate how his response to a new set of challenges in places like Syria, Ukraine and Iran fit into an overarching foreign policy philosophy.

That's left Obama open to intense criticism from opponents who argue he has squandered America's global leadership and lacks the credible threat of action that can stop international foes. That criticism has deeply frustrated the president and is a driving factor in his decision to deliver Wednesday's speech.

White House officials say Obama will argue that the U.S. is a linchpin in efforts to seek international cooperation, a posture that puts the nation on stronger footing than when it acts alone. Officials point to U.S. actions involving Ukraine, with Washington rallying European nations to join the U.S. in enacting economic sanctions on Russia after Moscow annexed the Crimean Peninsula. And with Iran, the U.S. led secret talks with the Islamic republic that spurred broader international nuclear negotiations.

The crisis in Syria continues to be among the most vexing problems facing the White House.

Even as Obama contends that an agreement to strip Syria of its chemical weapons was a success, that deal has done nothing to end the bloody civil war, which is now in its fourth year and which, according to activists, has left more than 160,000 people dead.

Obama is expected to cast Syria as a counterterrorism challenge in his speech Wednesday, making clear the U.S. continues to believe the right approach is strengthening the moderate opposition fighting forces loyal to President Bashar Assad. Administration officials say Obama may soon sign off on a project to train and equip those rebels, though it appeared unlikely that program would be ready for him to announce at West Point.

The president is also expected to discuss the counterterrorism threat facing the U.S. more broadly, arguing as he often has that core al-Qaida has been weakened even if splinter groups become a growing menace.

Secretary of State John Kerry previewed the $5 billion request for anti-terrorism funding during an interview Wednesday on "CBS This Morning." Kerry said Obama's plan to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan will allow the U.S. to divert resources to the anti-terrorism fight in other parts of the world.

The White House said Wednesday that funding will allow the Defense Department to conduct expanded train-and-equip missions for troops in countries allied with the U.S.; assist them in their counterterrorism efforts; and, with the State Department, support efforts to counter violent extremism and terrorist ideology.

The shift in U.S. foreign policy will reflect a "rapidly changing, more complex world where terrorism is the principal challenge," Kerry said.

Counterterrorism missions will be a central part of the continued U.S. military presence in Afghanistan that Obama announced Tuesday. Though combat missions will officially end later this year, Obama is leaving behind about 10,000 U.S. troops to train Afghan security forces and try to push back extremists.

The U.S. troop presence will be cut in half by the end of 2015 and concentrated in the capital of Kabul and at Bagram Air Field, the main U.S. base in Afghanistan. By the end of 2016, as Obama is preparing to leave the White House, the U.S. troop presence will be cut to fewer than 1,000.

"This is not an abandonment of Afghanistan," Kerry told NBC's "Today" Wednesday. "This is an emboldenment. This is an empowerment of Afghanistan."

The drawdown blueprint is contingent on Afghanistan's government signing a stalled bilateral security agreement. While Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign the accord, U.S. officials say they're confident that either of the candidates running to replace him will finalize the deal.

The Associated Press has contributed to this report.

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