Obama Says Wider al-Qaeda Network 'Lessens the Possibility' of 9/11-Style Attacks
President Obama told West Point graduates today that America has "a real stake, abiding self-interest, in making sure our children and our grandchildren grow up in a world where schoolgirls are not kidnapped, and where individuals are not slaughtered because of tribe or faith or political belief."
"I believe that a world of greater freedom and tolerance is not only a moral imperative, it also helps keep us safe. But 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," he added while outlining a foreign policy vision that he said found a happy medium between interventionism and isolationism.
"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; without building international support and legitimacy for our action; without leveling with the American people about the sacrifice required," he said. "...Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail."
Still, Obama insisted that his "bottom line" is "America must always lead on the world stage."
He said that the al-Qaeda threat is more diffuse than leaders centralized in the Af-Pak region, but drew the conclusion from this vast network of affiliates that the U.S. is under less of a threat.
"The need for a new strategy reflects the fact that today's principal threat no longer comes from a centralized al-Qaeda leadership. Instead, it comes from decentralized al-Qaeda affiliates and extremists, many with agendas focused in countries where they operate. And this lessens the possibility of large-scale 9/11-style attacks against the homeland, but it heightens the danger of U.S. personnel overseas being attacked, as we saw in Benghazi," Obama said.
The president said he'll call upon Congress to support a new Counter-Terrorism Partnerships Fund "of up to $5 billion, which will allow us to train, build capacity, and facilitate partner countries on the front lines."
"With the additional resources I'm announcing today, we will step up our efforts to support Syria's neighbors: Jordan and Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq, as they contend with refugees and confront terrorists working across Syria's borders. I will work with Congress to ramp up support for those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists and brutal dictators," he continued.
A senior administration official said on background that they "want to continue to increase the assistance that we provide to the Syrian opposition, but we do want to have this discussion with Congress about the potential for there to be a role for the U.S. military in that effort."
"We have been very clear that we do provide military assistance to the Syrian opposition, the armed Syrian opposition. We don’t detail the specifics of that support," the official said. "...So this is something that we have to work with Congress on going forward. But again, we are, as we said, providing military assistance to the Syrian opposition, and it’s something that will continue to be a focus given both the need to counter Assad but also to deal with the counterterrorism challenge within Syria."
The White House was buoyed by the defense reauthorization bill that passed the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, which included authorization for the Pentagon to provide a broad range of aid including lethal assistance to the Syrian opposition.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) warned "we should be very careful in considering approaches that could assist extremists in that conflict."
“The situation in Syria is desperate and we should be constantly assessing it for threats to U.S. security, but I am concerned that sending American weapons and training into this crisis could be like pouring gas on a fire,” said Lee, who voted against passing the bill out of committee.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said the new Syria focus -- more than three years after Bashar al-Assad first violently cracked down on peaceful protests against his rule -- is welcome.
"This will require sustained U.S. engagement, which has been absent to date, but that this national security threat demands. Like elsewhere around the globe, the president has been late in responding to this crisis," Royce said. “The Obama administration has consistently underestimated the threats we face: Iran, North Korea, al-Qaeda, and others. In many corners of the globe, the world is growing more unstable, with a tide of militancy facing the United States and our allies. If these challenges are to be met, the president must explain the high stakes to the American people, which demands more than a yearly speech.”
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said he "appreciates" Obama's intentions, "but the United States of America must act boldly as we confront a dangerous world."
"And we must not only speak as if we are an exceptional nation – we must act like it. America has a unique place in the world as the global leader and stabilizing force. A coherent national security strategy requires a recognition of the world the way it is, and not the way we wish it were," Rogers said. “America must confront not only a growing terrorist threat, but we are also seeing the rise of nation-state powers, like Russia and China, that seek to change the international order and undermine international institutions to their benefit. It is dangerous not to recognize the long-term threat to the global order posed by these developments."
“Authoritarian regimes like Syria, Russia, Iran and North Korea don’t respond to words or threats about complying with international norms; they respond to actions and strength," the chairman added. "I look forward to working with the president to help shape American’s national security policies to address these many threats.”