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Mission not accomplished? Obama speech fails to quiet critics

If President Obama was hoping to quiet critics of his foreign policy with Wednesday's commencement address at West Point, he may want a do-over.

The president's speech placed a heavy emphasis on the importance of multilateral action and global institutions, charting a middle ground between interventionists eager to commit military force to international crises and isolationists who would keep the U.S. out of foreign entanglements altogether.

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And after he spoke, the president was repaid in kind, as political figures and commentators on both sides of that debate found something to criticize in Mr. Obama's speech.

"It is unfortunate that the President once again fell back on his familiar tactic of attacking straw-men, posturing as the voice of reason between extremes, and suggesting that the only alternative to his policies is the unilateral use of military force everywhere," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in a statement after the speech. "Literally no one is proposing that, and it is intellectually dishonest to suggest so."

McCain praised the president's embrace of American exceptionalism, but he said that principle is not being converted into effective policies. "The President's failure in this regard can be seen in Russia's aggression in Europe, China's coercion of U.S. allies and partners in Asia, Syria's transformation into a regional sectarian conflict, the growth of Al-Qaeda across the Middle East and North Africa, and elsewhere," McCain explained. "None of these challenges are the fault of our President, but nothing he has done has been sufficient to address them."

In a similar vein was House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., who said in a statement that Mr. Obama's words have often "been followed by weak actions, or no actions."

"The result has been a general loss of U.S. credibility, making successful foreign policy nearly impossible," Royce said. "President Obama's diplomatic efforts cannot work if our allies lack confidence in U.S. commitments, and our opponents do not fear U.S. warnings."

Former Vice President Dick Cheney also panned the speech. "I think the perception around the world is increasingly negative but I think the main focus is on our president," Cheney told Fox News' Sean Hannity on Wednesday evening. "He's a very weak president, certainly the weakest I have seen in my lifetime."

Cheney, one of the president's most vocal critics on foreign affairs, said Mr. Obama was prepared to pull out of Afghanistan without negotiating an agreement to allow U.S. troops to stay beyond 2014. "That's stupid, unwise, and will in fact just reinforce the notion that we're weak and we have a president that doesn't understand his obligations," Cheney said.

The U.S., in fact, continues to work on a status-of-forces agreement with the Afghan government and has already announced that at least 9,800 troops will stay in Afghanistan after 2014.

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Nonetheless, Cheney said that world leaders are "absolutely convinced that the American capacity to lead and influence events in that part of the world has been dramatically reduced by this president."

The former vice president was among the chief architect's of former President George W. Bush's muscular approach to global affairs during his time in office. It was that ideology that then-Sen. Obama successfully ran against in 2008 and condemned again in his address on Wednesday, so Cheney's criticism, though heated, was largely predictable.

Less predictable was criticism from the left-leaning New York Times editorial board, which commended the president's reticence to use military force but said Mr. Obama "provided little new insight into how he plans to lead in the next two years, and many still doubt that he fully appreciates the leverage the United States has even in a changing world."

Mr. Obama also stressed the need for greater transparency on the use of drone strikes and government surveillance, a call the Times criticized as "ludicrous" in light of the administration's refusal to provide even "minimal disclosures" on those topics.

"This was far from Mr. Obama's big moment," the editorial concluded. "But since he has no office left to run for, what matters ultimately is his record in the next two and a half years."

Mr. Obama himself acknowledged after the speech that he is considering his legacy on foreign affairs as his time in the White House approaches a conclusion, recognizing there are limits to what any president can accomplish. "You don't walk into the presidency and completely remake the world and ignore history and ignore the problems that are already sitting there in the inbox," he said in an interview with NPR. "So you have to make choices about what's important and what's not."

"And every once in a while, a pitch is going to come right over home plate that you can knock out for a home run," the president added. "But you don't swing at every pitch."