Former NATO Commander Reacts To Obama's Foreign Policy Speech

May 28, 2014

Today, President Obama offered a strong defense of his administration’s foreign policy in a commencement speech at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.

Admiral James Stavridis, the former Supreme Allied Commander at NATO, discusses the speech with Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson.


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Well, for more on the president's speech, let's turn to retired U.S. Navy Admiral James Stavridis. He's the dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. And he also served as supreme ally commander at NATO. Admiral Stavridis, what's your take on the president's speech?

JAMES STAVRIDIS: Well, I thought it, first and foremost - and a lot of people have kind of overlooked this - began with a rousing statement that the United States is not a nation in decline. That we have an unmatched military that's strong and getting stronger energy position, a vibrant innovation-based economy, higher education that's the envy of the world, a hub of alliances.

I think he correctly put to rest some declinest thinking. And that's important because we need to counteract a sense of isolationism in the country. In terms of the broad message about taking the international approach to force, I think he's right on the money. And certainly, if we've learned anything from Iraq and Afghanistan, it's that we need friends and partners. And just look at Afghanistan with their 50 nations today.

So I think that international component cam through pretty clearly. Personally, I wish he had talked a little more about interagency - bringing together all the groups in the U.S. government to do things and, indeed, private-public partnering. So I applaud where he went. He could've gone a little further I think with the partnering theme.

HOBSON: So you would like to have heard more about partnering because some people that we've heard from today in response to this speech had thought that it does show what Mara was talking about there, that some people would like to see him be more willing to act unilaterally in certain cases.

STAVRIDIS: I think as a general proposition in today's world, a unilateral action is less effective than multilateral action. And of course, I come out of four years as the NATO commander where I worked with 28 nations as well as 22 coalition partners in Afghanistan very effectively. 50 countries working together - I think that's certainly the preferred approach.

HOBSON: So on what the president said today was the most direct threat to America, terrorism, he argued for a shift. Let's listen to what he had to say.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: For the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America, at home and abroad, remains terrorism. But a strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naive and unsustainable. I believe we must shift our counterterrorism strategy drawing on the successes and shortcomings of our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold.

HOBSON: Now, Admiral Stavridis, he even went as far as to talk about the idea that perhaps members of the opposition in Syria could be doing antiterrorist work there. What do you make of that shift in strategy in the fight against terrorism?

STAVRIDIS: Well, first of all, I don't think it's an on and off switch. In other words, we're only going to do multilateral actions or we're only going to do unilateral actions. I think it's a rheostat. And if the rheostat is dialed a bit more toward the multilateral and the partnering, I think that's a good thing. But it certainly doesn't preclude the moments when you have to reach out for the rheostat and turn it to unilateral and to take military action. I think that Bin Laden raid is a pretty good example of that.

But in terms of Syria specifically or Afghanistan or looking at Libya or counter piracy, I think in all of these missions working together - international, interagency and in deep private-public partnering with humanitarian organizations - all these things have to be effective tools as we counter violent extremists.

HOBSON: The president also talked about the Guantanamo Bay military base. It's been very controversial that it's remained open, even though he had pledged to close it. And of course, he has faced a lot of opposition in terms of doing that from members of Congress and many Republicans. Let's listen to what he had to say there.


OBAMA: But what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law. It is our willingness to affirm them through our actions.


OBAMA: And that's why I will continue to push to close Gitmo because American values and legal traditions do not permit the indefinite detention of people beyond our borders.

HOBSON: Now, when he says he's going to continue to push to close Gitmo, the push certainly hasn't been working so far.

STAVRIDIS: Well, if you look at the long history of Gitmo, which at one time had 800 prisoners and now is down well below 200, I think we've gotten rid of a lot of them. Now, some of them have come back on the battlefield and been killed. Others are part of ongoing networks. So they are not perfect solutions here.

But I think in terms of actually closing the doors, no, we haven't seen any progress. And I concur with the president that it would be best if we could close it. But some of the people there now - we've boiled it down to the really challenging, terrible people.

I think it is a very difficult challenge. I don't think there's any easy solution other than continuing to resettle some of these prisoners abroad. Perhaps, when you get it down to a very small number, you can go back to the Congress and propose bringing them to the United States into high-security prisons here.

HOBSON: Admiral Stavridis, I want to get your thoughts on one more thing that the president said. He got very personal at one point in the speech noting that four service members who stood in the audience when he announced the surge in Afghanistan ended up giving their lives in that effort. The president said he believes the surge was necessary, though, for America's security. Let's listen.


OBAMA: But I am haunted by those deaths. I am haunted by those wounds. And I will betray my duty to you and to the country we love if I ever sent you into harms way simply because I saw a problem somewhere in the world that needed to be fixed or because I was worried about critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak.

HOBSON: Admiral, what are your thoughts on that?

STAVRIDIS: First, the president's speaking on sacred ground at West Point. This is the Long Gray Line that has defended this nation in so many different places. And I think that all of us who have been in this chain of command - I know Secretary Gates has spoken about this frequently.

As the NATO commander, I signed over 2,000 letters of condolences to young men and women who died under my strategic command in Afghanistan on that NATO mission. I think all of us feel every one of those deaths. And yet, there are times when you have to reach for that rheostat and you have to turn it toward hard power.

In so many cases, though, doing that with allies and partners and the interagency and, indeed, the private-public partnering can be the best course. I think the president was sensible of that.

HOBSON: Retired U.S. Navy Admiral James Stavridis. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

STAVRIDIS: Thanks. Great questions. Bye-bye.

HOBSON: This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.