Tying America’s hands


President Obama has retrenched U.S. global engagement in a way that has shaken the confidence of many U.S. allies and encouraged some adversaries. That conclusion can be heard not just from Republican hawks but also from senior officials from Singapore to France and, more quietly, from some leading congressional Democrats. As he has so often in his political career, Mr. Obama has elected to respond to the critical consensus not by adjusting policy but rather by delivering a big speech.

In his address Wednesday to the graduating cadets at West Point, Mr. Obama marshaled a virtual corps of straw men, dismissing those who “say that every problem has a military solution,” who “think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak,” who favor putting “American troops into the middle of [Syria’s] increasingly sectarian civil war,” who propose “invading every country that harbors terrorist networks” and who think that “working through international institutions … or respecting international law is a sign of weakness.”

Few, if any, of those who question the president’s record hold such views. Instead, they are asking why an arbitrary date should be set for withdrawing all forces from Afghanistan, especially given the baleful results of the “zero option” in Iraq. They are suggesting that military steps short of the deployment of U.S. ground troops could stop the murderous air and chemical attacks by the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad. They are arguing that the United States should not be constrained by Cyprus or Bulgaria in responding to Russia’s invasion and annexation of parts of Ukraine.

To those doubters, the president’s address offered scant comfort. Reiterating and further tightening a doctrine he laid out in a speech to the United Nations last fall, Mr. Obama said the United States should act unilaterally only in defense of a narrow set of “core interests,” such as the free flow of trade. When “crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction,” he said, “we should not go it alone.”

This binding of U.S. power places Mr. Obama at odds with every U.S. president since World War II. In effect, he ruled out interventions to stop genocide or reverse aggression absent a direct threat to the U.S. homeland or a multilateral initiative. Those terms would exclude missions by previous administrations in places such as Somalia and Haiti and Mr. Obama’s own proposal to strike Syria last year — but not the war in Iraq, which was a multilateral campaign.

Mr. Obama made one new practical proposal: to set up a $5 billion fund to “train, build capacity and facilitate partner countries on the front lines” of fighting terrorism. The initiative is worthy of support as a way of checking emerging threats in places such as Yemen, Libya, Somalia and Mali. But just as a U.S. invasion is not needed for every terrorist haven, not all can be eliminated by training other countries’ forces.

Mr. Obama also pledged to “ramp up support” for the Syrian opposition. But he made the same promise last year and failed to follow through. Those U.S. allies who worry about Mr. Obama’s foreign policy retreat — and those who have exploited it — will be impressed by a change in U.S. behavior, not the president’s rhetoric.

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This editorial originally appeared in the Washington Post.