WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama will seek to counter unrelenting criticism of his foreign policy in a speech that may open the door to a slightly deeper US involvement in Syria.
In the commencement address to graduates at the US Military Academy in West Point, New York, Obama will lay out a broad vision for America's role, one that is reliant on international diplomacy and avoids over-reaching or unilateral action.
He will set out a counter-terrorism strategy to reflect a threat that is less focused on Afghanistan as the war there winds down, and redirect resources to places like North Africa. He is expected to express a willingness to expand assistance to Syrian opposition groups who are trying to oust President Bashar al-Assad, but officials do not expect him to announce a plan for training Syrian rebels.
Obama's tendency to rely on diplomacy and steer clear of foreign entanglements has drawn fire from opposition Republicans in Congress and various foreign policy pundits, who would prefer a more robust approach. It has prompted many foreign diplomats privately to bemoan what they regard as a lack of leadership from Washington after more than five years of the Obama presidency, much of which has been taken up with reviving a deeply troubled economy at home.
"There's an extreme indecisiveness and cautiousness that just worries people," Senator Bob Corker, the senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Reuters. "I'm not for policing the world but I do think that our lack of leadership has created a vacuum and I think that into that vacuum problems are being created," he said.
Obama critics fault him for not intervening in the Syrian civil war and for not being more effective at countering China's assertiveness in the South China Sea and Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
"Rather than leading countries to do things, Obama announces ideas and concepts and then at the end of it you wonder, some months or a year later, well, what actually got executed? Where did the president's words take the form of a program that showed real leadership?" said Anthony Cordesman, a national security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
White House officials bristle at the charges, saying Obama's critics reflexively suggest military solutions at a time when Americans are weary of war after more than a decade of costly conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan.
They portray Obama's handling of Syria as positive, pointing out that President Bashar al-Assad was forced to give up chemical weapons. The threat of sanctions against Russia has prompted President Vladimir Putin to think twice about moving deeper into Ukraine, and the United States has voiced strong opposition to Chinese steps in the South China Sea, they said.
Secretary of State John Kerry, in a speech last week at Yale University, sounded like he was heeding criticism of the administration's foreign policy, which has largely been driven by a desire not to replicate wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We cannot allow a hangover from the excessive interventionism of the last decade to lead now to an excess of isolationism in this decade," he said. "I can tell you for certain, most of the rest of the world doesn't lie awake at night worrying about America's presence - they worry about what would happen in our absence," Kerry said.