Barack Obama warns US must not rush to war

President Barack Obama Wednesday mounted a defiant defense of his foreign policy, warning America must lead the world but must do so by emboldening partners, not by blindly rushing off to war.

Washington: President Barack Obama Wednesday mounted a defiant defense of his foreign policy, warning America must lead the world but must do so by emboldening partners, not by blindly rushing off to war.

Obama hit back at critics who charge he is weak and presiding over an era of American decline, and offered an implicit rebuke of the muscular military posture of the George W. Bush era.

"The United States is the one indispensable nation," Obama told young graduates in a keynote address at West Point military academy.

"Here`s my bottom line: America must always lead on the world stage.

"The question we face ... is not whether America will lead, but how we will lead."

Obama who has spent his presidency pulling troops home from Iraq and escalating, and then winding down, the war in Afghanistan, sketched a blueprint for a post-war on terror foreign policy.

"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," Obama said.

"Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint, but from our willingness to rush into military adventures -- without thinking through the consequences," Obama said, in an apparent reference to the Iraq war, which he has branded a disaster.

The president`s speech came with his foreign policy, once seen as a political asset, under assault from critics who believe he is being pushed around by the likes of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Obama lashed out at those who complain he should have launched attacks on Syria over its chemical weapons use or made a more robust strategic response to Russia`s moves in Ukraine, or who believe he has left Iraq or Afghanistan to fend for themselves.

"Tough talk often draws headlines but war rarely conforms to slogans," Obama said.

"US military action cannot be the only, or even primary, component of our leadership in every instance.

"Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail." 

Obama said he was "haunted" by the deaths of US servicemen and women killed and injured on his watch, including some who attended a previous commencement speech he gave at West Point.

Obama also made an implicit defense of his decision to call off military strikes on Syria at the last minute last year to punish Damascus over chemical weapons attacks.

Critics at home and abroad warned that the decision left dangerous questions about whether Washington would stand up to "red lines" elsewhere in the world.But Obama said he would betray his duty if he sent American forces into action "simply because I saw a problem somewhere in the world that needed fixing, or because I was worried about critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak." 

Obama has been under increasing pressure to do more to support Syrian rebels battling President Bashar al-Assad and offer some relief to civilians reeling under strikes including barrel bombings carried out by the regime.

"As frustrating as it is, there are no easy answers -- no military solution that can eliminate the terrible suffering anytime soon," Obama said.

But the president promised to "ramp up" help to Syrian rebels, and a senior administration official said later the White House could foresee the possibility of the US military openly training opposition troops.

The CIA is already believed to be carrying out a covert program to train and arm some rebels. 

Washington has been loath, however, to send game-changing weapons like anti-aircraft missiles to rebel forces which it fears could fall into the hands of extremists.

After announcing a force of around 10,000 troops would stay in Afghanistan after combat soldiers leave at the end of the year, but that the last US serviceman would come home in 2016, Obama said it was time to reorient the struggle against terrorism.

He identified a new breeding ground for extremism from South Asia to the Sahel, and asked lawmakers to fund a $5 billion program to train and equip US partners to combat terrorism.

He said the fund would support actions like training security forces to go after Al-Qaeda in Yemen and the multinational force in Somalia. 

The new brand of American leadership will stress multinational solutions and coalition building, Obama said, dismissing criticism of those who such action as a "sign of weakness."

He said that the Washington had shaped international opinion to isolate Russia after its annexation of Crimea -- a tactic he said had directly led to successful elections at the weekend.
Obama also said the global coalition built by the United States had a "very real chance" of achieving a breakthrough nuclear agreement with Iran.
He warned China against "aggression" in the South China Sea, but called on Congress to show an example by ratifying the Law of the Sea, which critics say infringes on US sovereignty.