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Obama Will Explain ‘Interventionist’ Foreign Policy At West Point

By Christi Parsons and Kathleen Hennessey, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — After months of running his foreign policy like a firefighter responding to alarms, President Barack Obama is worried that Americans don’t understand his overall approach and plans to launch a campaign to explain it over the coming months.

The president will use a commencement speech Wednesday at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point to outline a second-term foreign policy that is “interventionist and internationalist, but not isolationist or unilateral,” said a senior adviser familiar with the plans.

“The United States is the only nation capable of galvanizing action,” said the adviser, who asked for anonymity to discuss White House plans before the address.

Obama believes that “we need to put that to use in an international system that is sustainable and enduring,” the adviser said, “and that can address challenges, from traditional ones like maritime and trade issues, to emerging ones like climate change.”

Obama sees the U.S. moving out of a period of war and entering a new one marked by different global priorities, advisers say.

But while the administration has focused on crises in Syria and Ukraine, and fought for equilibrium after damaging leaks about national security and intelligence practices, the U.S. response has come across as more ad hoc than comprehensive.

The White House has signaled for weeks that it wanted to use the West Point remarks to articulate its doctrine and counter criticism from once friendly corners that Obama’s foreign policy is adrift.

On his recent Asia tour, Obama repeatedly and bluntly defended his policies in Ukraine, Syria, Asia and the Mideast, arguing that he successfully rallied the international community and made good on U.S. commitments while avoiding new conflicts, which Americans say they don’t want.

Although Obama seemed irked by having to mount such a defense, aides in the White House acknowledged that they needed to better communicate the president’s thinking, particularly to diplomats, foreign policy analysts and world leaders.

The heads of state Obama once easily courted parted ways with the president’s decision to back off plans for an airstrike in Syria while he sought congressional approval.

That episode has helped to create a credibility gap that increasingly has allies questioning whether Obama would remain committed to their interests if it meant using military force.

Privately, White House officials have described the working label for Obama’s doctrine as “Don’t do stupid stuff.” Within the tight circle of foreign policy aides in the White House, the shorthand captured Obama’s resistance to a rigid catch-all doctrine, as well as his aversion to what he once called the “dumb war” in Iraq.

One adviser to the president said he wants Americans to understand what that overall approach means for such “hot spots” as Ukraine, Iran and Syria.

The president’s challenge will be to explain not just a doctrine but its application, advisers agree.

“The thing that concerns me the most is that we are kind of bouncing from issue to issue without a clear articulation of what the national security interest of the United States actually is,” former Democratic Senator Jim Webb said last week in an interview on The Diane Rehm Show.

White House officials and the president often fend off critics by suggesting that their prescriptions would start a new war.

For some, that argument has been wearing thin, particularly as the Syrian civil war rages on while the U.S. seems locked at a standstill.

“They define themselves in contrast to their predecessors and the enormous sins of commission there,” said Barry Pavel, a former adviser to Obama who is now vice president of the Atlantic Council. “I think they’ve swung way too far in the direction of sins of omission.”

Americans may be war-weary, but a president’s job is to do the unpopular and difficult, Pavel said. “The world is not going to wait for us to recover,” Pavel said. “As they say, sometimes the enemy gets a vote here.”

The president has taken several previous stabs at outlining his doctrine. He has emphasized multilateral coalitions, stating flatly in 2009, as he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, “America cannot act alone. America alone cannot secure the peace.”

And he has emphasized the importance of the international community developing alternatives to military intervention — such as sanctions — that “exact a real price” and pile on pressure.

The White House often points to its action in Libya as a model for this Obama-style intervention. And after a U.S.-led coalition launched airstrikes on government forces surrounding Benghazi, the president made it the case study for his argument.

The U.S. had “an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves. We also had the ability to stop Gadhafi’s forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground.”

“As president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action,” Obama said in March 2011, as he declared the mission a success. But those words provide an unfortunate contrast with the images of slaughter in Syria.

Members of his Cabinet will follow up with their own speeches in a coordinated effort to help their boss explain.

The campaign is designed to show how the U.S. moves from Iraq and Afghanistan to a “new stage in our engagement with the world,” the adviser said, as well as “what we expect to accomplish over the next two years.”

AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski

At Civil Rights Act Event, Obama Praises Johnson For His Vision

By Christi Parsons and Kathleen Hennessey, Tribune Washington Bureau

AUSTIN, Texas — President Barack Obama said Thursday that the country was still caught up in the kind of debates that marked the civil rights movement as he called on Americans to set aside cynicism and push for the ideals reflected in the Civil Rights Act.

As he offered a tribute to President Lyndon Johnson at a 50th anniversary celebration of the law, Obama recalled the political gridlock and ideological division Johnson faced — and overcame.

“If some of this sounds familiar, it’s because today we’ve become locked in the same great debate, about equality and opportunity, and the role of government in ensuring each,” Obama said.

“Our society is still wracked with division and poverty,” he said, adding that “it’s easy to conclude that there are limits to change … that politics is a fool’s errand.”

“I reject such thinking,” he said. “I have lived out the promise of LBJ’s efforts. … Because of the civil rights movement, because of the laws that LBJ signed, new doors of opportunity swung open. … They swung open for you and they swung open for me, and I’m standing here because of it.”

As Obama recounted the fights over Johnson’s Great Society programs, his address turned into a meditation on his own role in history.

In his keynote, Obama examined that question in a personal way, talking about Johnson’s mastery of the legislative process and his own frustrations in dealing with lawmakers.

“Sometimes you’re stymied. The office humbles you,” Obama said. “You’re reminded daily that in this great democracy you are but a relay swimmer in the currents of history.”

But he spoke hopefully about the power to “bend those currents … by shaping our laws and by shaping our debates.”

It is possible to achieve change by working “within the confines of our world as it is, but also by reimagining our world as it should be,” Obama said. “This was President Johnson’s genius.”

Five years into the presidency, Obama had mostly left Johnson unmentioned until the summit marking the anniversary of the civil rights laws that changed the face of America.

Advisers close to the president have bristled at comparisons between Johnson, a master at working Capitol Hill, and Obama, who openly admits that pretty much anything he supports is doomed in the divided Congress.

Civil rights veterans and historians have debated that Johnson-Obama comparison on the sidelines of the summit this week.

In Obama’s defense, scholars note that, in passing civil and voting rights bills, Johnson benefited from an increasingly powerful social movement and the growing consensus around racial equality.

“By the early 1960s, there was a moral consensus on what needed to be done on civil rights,” said H.W. Brands, a presidential historian at the University of Texas at Austin.

Thus, some veterans of the civil rights movement say Obama deserves more leeway in the analysis. Obama faces opposition that views him as “other,” said Julian Bond, an early organizer of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and a prominent civil rights leader.

Johnson, tasked with forging a coalition of moderate Republicans and Northern Democrats, “never faced anything like this, even when he was dealing with his most passionate opponents,” said Bond, now a professor at American University and the University of Virginia.

And even Johnson saw the limits of his powers of persuasion. In the 1966 midterms, Democrats lost seats in Congress and Johnson began to feel backlash from lawmakers he had successfully won over, particularly when it came to funding the Great Society programs he had gotten passed.

But in his remarks to the summit Wednesday night, former President Bill Clinton praised political courage that outlasts political capital.

“That is often the case with big votes that change millions of lives,” Clinton said. “I’ve had my fair share of tough phone calls to good people who lost their seats after we won this or that big measure by just a vote or two in the House or the Senate.”

AFP Photo/Saul Loeb

Obama Calls For Immigration Officials To Review Deportation Practices

By Christi Parsons and Kathleen Hennessey, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is directing top immigration officials to review U.S. deportation practices to see whether they can be carried out “more humanely” while still enforcing the laws on the books.

In an evening meeting with Latino lawmakers, Obama said he still wanted to push a comprehensive immigration reform package but that, in the meantime, he had asked the head of the Department of Homeland Security to run an “inventory” of the agency’s practices.

Obama “emphasized his deep concern about the pain too many families feel from the separation that comes from our broken immigration system,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement released after the meeting.

Obama made the private announcement at a time when he is coming under increasing pressure from Latino lawmakers and other leaders to ease deportations even if Congress isn’t willing to pass an immigration reform package this year.

With hope for an immigration overhaul all but dead for the year, advocates are calling for executive action in increasingly forceful terms. Last week, the head of the country’s largest Latino advocacy group pronounced Obama the “deporter in chief.”

Obama’s fellow Illinois Democrat Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez echoed the phrase on the House floor, noting that Obama had presided over a record number of deportations. About 2 million people have been ejected from the U.S. since Obama took office.

The idea that Obama might take executive action doesn’t come out of the blue. In 2012, Obama announced that he would temporarily stop deporting many immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children.

Advocates have demanded that Obama extend that protection to others, such as the families of those young immigrants. They have also called for changes in other enforcement programs, including cooperative agreements between immigration authorities and local government agencies.

But Obama has said he thinks he has pushed his executive power as far as it will go on the matter. Republican critics have cited Obama’s past actions as a reason not to trust him to enforce the law as it stands.

Obama has also told top advisers that, when it comes to tough questions on immigration policy, he wants to hear from the people most likely to be affected.

The White House has been frustrated by immigration activists’ decision to turn their focus on the president. Officials said they believed the strategy only served as a distraction that has taken pressure off Republicans.

On Thursday, Obama hosted Gutierrez, Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairman Ruben Hinojosa (D-TX) and House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra (D-CA) for a meeting in the Oval Office.

They talked about their mutual efforts to pass “common sense” immigration reform through the House this year and about the need to “put pressure on congressional Republicans” to pass a bipartisan package, Carney said.

Anunska Sampredo via Flickr