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Obama pivots back to foreign policy

CBS News Homeland Security Correspondent Bob Orr and CBS News Senior National Security Analyst Juan Zarate discuss the president’s foreign policy ahead of his commencement address to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point
Flash Points: What is the Obama Doctrine? 04:55

Since he stepped into the White House in 2009, President Obama has sought out a foreign policy stance that relies more on soft power -- diplomacy and strong multilateral relations -- than the hard power employed by his predecessor. Few have questioned the president's decision to scale back the United States' military footprint across the globe, but Mr. Obama's response to international flare-ups, such as the crises in Syria and Ukraine, has prompted some to question whether the United States' world influence is waning to a dangerous degree.

"Speak Loudly and Carry a Small Stick: Obama has turned Teddy Roosevelt's famous maxim on its head," John Judis of the left-leaning The New Republic wrote in March, echoing a complaint put forward by Republican operatives, among others.

With two years left in his presidency, Mr. Obama is now attempting to change the narrative surrounding his foreign policy. The president on Wednesday delivers the commencement address at the United States Military Academy at West Point, using the speech to mark a natural turning point in America's role in the world. The United States is finally ending a decade of overzealous intervention, the administration argues, as it writes the final chapter to the war in Afghanistan. The speech comes one day after Mr. Obama announced his plans for keeping a limited troop presence in Afghanistan through 2015.

President Obama outlines U.S. exit strategy in Afghanistan 14:29

"I'm confident that if we carry out this approach, we can not only responsibly end our war in Afghanistan and achieve the objectives that took us to war in the first place, we'll also be able to begin a new chapter in the story of American leadership around the world," Mr. Obama said from the White House Rose Garden on Tuesday.

Rather than offering a new approach to foreign policy, Mr. Obama's deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters Sunday, the president aims to put the ongoing situations in places like Syria "into the context" of Mr. Obama's commitment to diplomacy.

"What we want to do is step back and put all of these different events into the context of how does America lead in the world and how do we strike that balance between not getting overextended as we were in Iraq, but ensuring that we are leading coalitions of nations, leading the international community on different issues," he said.

Without a distinct change in policy to announce, it's unclear what impact the president's speech will have domestically or abroad.

"Any time the American president speaks, people have to listen," said CBS News National Security Analyst Juan Zarate. "I think the real question, especially that our friends and allies around the world will have, is whether or not the policy is followed by real action they can perceive and... how this impacts the perception of American power."

The president plans to follow up the speech with a larger diplomatic push in Europe. Next week, he heads to Europe for the G-7 summit in Brussels and a trip to Poland where he'll meet with Ukraine's newly-elected president, Petro Poroshenko. A senior administration official told reporters this week that the Ukrainian election "provides some assurance and legitimacy at a time where Ukraine has been dealing with significant challenges."

"Again, what we've always said is this election will settle the legitimacy question," the official added. "There were questions raised by Russia and others after the Yanukovych government collapsed and he fled town. Now the people of Ukraine have spoken, and I don't think there can be any questioning the legitimacy of a result that reflects such a broad cross-section of the Ukrainian public."

The election results -- as well as the reduction of Russian troops this week from the Ukrainian border -- illustrate the sort of incremental progress the administration has pursued abroad.

Asked to explain his foreign policy doctrine last month, Mr. Obama said his approach "avoids errors."

"You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run," he said. "But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world."

Zarate made the case that the perception of the vacuum of American power -- whether it was brought on by unforced errors or not -- has created problems unto itself.

"The baseball analogy I would use is that we're just not swinging the bat," he said. "And others in the international community see that and are affected by it... I think the president now realizes our absence on the world stage now creates problems on the world stage."

Obama’s plan to “train the trainers” in Syria 01:12

There's some evidence the administration may be taking that message to heart: For instance, the administration is considering new plans to train and assist Syrian rebels.

At the same time, the administration has been working on improving its foreign policy reputation among U.S. lawmakers -- with some decidedly underwhelming results.

White House officials last week held a series of private meetings with lawmakers to discuss foreign policy, the Associated Press reports, but the meetings left some unsatisfied. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, described one meeting with White House chief of staff Denis McDonough and national security adviser Susan Rice as "one of the most bizarre I've attended."

"I realized last night that the administration has no policy in Syria -- has no strategy in Syria," Corker said the following day, during a Foreign Relations Committee hearing. "And that's why they haven't been willing to talk with us about this."

Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told CBS News that the president's speech will most likely aim to allay concerns like those by Corker and others in Congress.

"I doubt the president's overly concerned about how these policies are adding up over, as much as how they're adding up at home," he said.

"My guess is that he's still confident in his own foreign policy and feels that it's what the American public more or less wants, but feels that he's under some political pressure."

Even if Mr. Obama remains confident in his foreign policy approach, O'Hanlon pointed out, he needs support from Congress when it comes to lifting sanctions on Iran or getting support for a military budget he finds acceptable.

Last week, the House passed a defense authorization bill that Mr. Obama threatened to veto. The White House pointed out that the bill rejected Mr. Obama's proposed cost saving measures and restricted the president's handling of the prisoners who remain detained in Guantanamo Bay.

Mr. Obama's speech, O'Hanlon said, should help ease the negotiating process over such issues. By reasserting his foreign policy approach, he said, the president aims "not so much to mollify his critics but to engage them."

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