President Obama defended his declining military budgets and reluctance to use military force in Syria Thursday, saying the U.S. made mistakes when it “overreached” in Vietnam and Iraq.
President Obama went after Donald Trump again Thursday, urging his audience at the Air Force Academy graduation to reject calls for isolationism.
“There’s a debate going on in our country about our nation’s role in the world,” Mr. Obama told the new Air Force officers at Colorado Springs, Colorado. “America cannot shirk the mantle of leadership. We can’t be isolationist.”
Mr. Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has been accused of isolationism for proposing to build a wall on the border with Mexico, among other reasons. He has rejected that criticism, saying he is focused on security, not isolationism.
The president’s swipe at Mr. Trump came just a day after he blasted the Republican’s “crazy” plan to roll back regulations on Wall Street banks and criticized Mr. Trump’s tax plan as harmful to the middle class.
The billionaire businessman also has blasted Mr. Obama for slashing defense spending, saying the U.S. military is “depleted.” Mr. Obama fired back at that criticism Thursday without mentioning Mr. Trump by name.
“Our military is, by a mile, the strongest in the world,” the president said. “Yes, after two major ground wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, we’re drawing down the size of our armed forces, which is natural and necessary. And we have to keep improving readiness and modernizing our force. But it is undeniable — our military is the most capable fighting force on the planet.”
The president defended his declining military budgets and reluctance to use military force in Syria, saying the U.S. made mistakes when it “overreached” in Vietnam and Iraq.
“If Iran and Russia want to spill their blood and treasure trying to prop up their Syrian client and get sucked into a quagmire, that’s their choice,” Mr. Obama said at the graduation ceremony at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. “As president of the United States, I have made a different choice.”
Mr. Obama, who has deployed a small number of special operations troops to Syria this year to fight the Islamic State, said wise leadership means “resisting the temptation to intervene militarily every time there’s a problem or a crisis in the world.”
“As we saw in Vietnam and the Iraq War, oftentimes the greatest damage to American credibility comes when we overreach, when we don’t think through the consequences of our actions,” the president said. “We have to learn from our history.”
He pointed to the Iranian nuclear deal as a triumph of diplomacy over military action.
“We did it without firing a shot. We did it with diplomacy, not war,” Mr. Obama said.
He also said he has “not hesitated to use force” when necessary, pointing to the targeted killing of various terrorist leaders of the Islamic State and al Qaeda.
The president also launched into a plea for the U.S. to enter into more treaties for security purposes.
“Lately, there’s been a mindset in Congress that just about any international treaty is somehow a violation of American sovereignty, and so the Senate almost never approves treaties anymore,” Mr. Obama said. “They voted down a treaty to protect disabled Americans, including our veterans, while Sen. and World War II veteran Bob Dole was sitting right there in the Senate chambers in a wheelchair.”
The U.N. treaty to ban discrimination against the disabled fell five votes short in the Senate in 2012. Senate Republicans objected that it would create new abortion rights and interfere with the ability of parents to homeschool disabled children.
Mr. Obama also called on the Senate to approve the Law of the Sea Convention, another U.N. treaty governing navigation and other maritime issues. It was opposed by President Reagan; the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations recommended it in 2004, but the full Senate has never voted on it.