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Obama at West Point [Editorial]

Republicans in Congress lost no time in condemning President Obama's commencement address at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point last week as further proof of his weakness and vacillation in confronting America's foes. But in fact, Mr. Obama's talk was a reasoned argument for restraint when it comes to how American economic, diplomatic and military power should be employed to advance our interests in a rapidly changing, complex world. The GOP may claim it has a better idea, but we have yet to hear it.

If there was an overarching theme to the president's talk it was that America must be prepared to meet the challenges confronting it through a variety of means, with military force being only one of them — a position he neatly summed up when he told the cadets "just because we've got the best hammer in the world doesn't mean every problem is a nail." Sometimes war truly is unavoidable, he said, but he also reminded his listeners that "some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint but from our willingness to rush into military adventures."

There are any number of examples of that, starting with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. No one disputes that the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan was justified to topple the Taliban regime that had harbored al-Qaida before the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, or to hunt down Osama bin Laden and other leaders of the plot. But neither could anyone have foreseen at the time that we would still be fighting there more than a decade later in what has become the longest war in America's history.

The Iraq war, begun on the basis of faulty intelligence about Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction, was even more problematic. What was supposed to be a lightning strike against a despised dictator followed by the establishment of the first Western-style democracy in the Middle East instead sparked a bloody sectarian civil war that lasted for years, with our forces stuck in the middle. The U.S. finally managed to extricate itself from that mess in 2011, leaving behind an ongoing insurgency that continues to cause thousands of deaths every year.

One would think those experiences might have tempered the hawkish attitude among GOP lawmakers that prompts them to demand a U.S. military response to every crisis that arises. But the president is not "weak" or "vacillating" simply because he recognizes there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the world's problems or that going to war is not the only way a president can demonstrate resolve. Even a cursory survey of recent history shows why that's not true:

•In Ukraine there was never any question that the U.S. would go to war with Russia over its annexation of Crimea and attempts to destabilize the government in Kiev. But the president marshaled its European allies and the international community to impose economic sanctions aimed at crippling the Russian economy and isolating Russian President Vladimir Putin politically. It was the credibility of that threat that ultimately forced Mr. Putin to back off by recalling the 40,000 troops he had massed along Ukraine's border.

•In Syria, President Bashar Assad's use of chemical weapons represented a "red line" Mr. Obama vowed the regime could not cross; when the Syrian government crossed that line anyway, Senate Republicans John McCain and Lindsey Graham rushed to denounce Mr. Obama as "weak" for not ordering a U.S. strike on Damascus. But the president's successful effort to enlist Russia's aid in forcing Mr. Assad to give up his chemical arsenal accomplished the U.S. policy goal in Syria at least as effectively as airstrikes could have, and without embroiling the U.S. more deeply in Syria's civil war or putting the lives of American military personnel at risk.

•In Libya, there's no conceivable role for U.S. military forces that would leave that country more stable or able to meet the basic needs of its citizens. U.S. military might can't bring democracy back to Egypt, prevent Somalia's descent into chaos or rescue the more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped last month by the Islamist extremists group Boko Haram.

None of this means a U.S. president is powerless to affect the outcome in such cases. But to believe there is a military solution to these problems is dangerous hubris. For a nation weary of war, Mr. Obama has pursued a measured foreign policy that we believe most Americans agree with despite the persistent drumbeat among congressional Republicans that a president who actually takes the time to weigh the costs and consequences of going to war is somehow less resolute as a leader than one who is willing to send in the Marines at the drop of a hat.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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