President Barack Obama looks convincing at West Point. Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
President Barack Obama looks convincing at West Point. Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

It's rare when a commencement speaker tells graduates he's doing his best to diminish their career opportunities. Yet to a military stretched thin by a decade at war, President Barack Obama's message at West Point's graduation was doubtless welcome.

"U.S. military action cannot be the only -- or even primary -- component of our leadership in every instance," Obama said. In laying out his vision for the U.S. role in the world, the president aimed for the well-trod high ground between isolationists and interventionists. His last effort to get there, a peevish exposition at a news conference in the Philippines, wasn't very convincing. His presentation was more polished today, but it's unlikely to tamp down criticism of his conduct of foreign policy as weak, indecisive and unconvincing

Obama's twin convictions that the U.S. cannot afford a reflexive resort to military intervention and must avoid the perils of overstretch are fundamentally sound. The problems lie with his proposals for putting those convictions into effect.

Set aside the contradiction between Obama's boilerplate about how "America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world" and his warnings, barely two breaths later, about China's burgeoning military, Russia's belligerence and the competing aspirations of a new global middle class. And never mind the awkward facts he didn't mention, whether Russia's absorption of Crimea or the growing nuclear threat posed by North Korea. Most troubling is the mushiness of the initiatives he proposes as a way to extend U.S. leadership without putting boots on the ground.

Start with the request to Congress for a new Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund of as much as $5 billion. Building the capacity of other nations to fight terrorism is a good investment. This proposal, though, seems more like a slush fund -- covering everything from helping Syria's neighbors cope with the turmoil next door and training security forces in Yemen to "facilitating French operations in Mali." Such programs require the closest supervision: Mali's 2012 coup, for instance, was led by an officer who received U.S. military training. Meanwhile, potentially working against such efforts is a planned cut of $1.6 billion in U.S. humanitarian assistance to strife-torn countries.

The president's pledge to "work with Congress to ramp up support" for Syria's opposition fighters also fails to satisfy. After everything that has already not happened, including Obama's unfulfilled "red line" threat about the consequences of Syria's use of chemical weapons, this is pretty weak tea. Compare it with the Senate Armed Services Committee's vote on Friday to "provide equipment, training, supplies, and defense services to assist vetted members of the Syrian opposition." Obama's formula just feeds suspicions that the administration isn't serious. Compounding that impression was Obama's accompanying avowal of more transparency about U.S. counterterrorism efforts -- a warmed-over, and still mostly unfulfilled, promise he made in a speech a year ago.

The sad thing is, Obama could have done more to advance his case for U.S. leadership if he had just built it around his announcement yesterday about drawing down forces in Afghanistan. West Point, after all, was where Obama announced, in December 2009, his decision to send 30,000 additional troops there. That deployment, and its subsequent successful withdrawal, have given the U.S. greater flexibility to advance its global interests. That's a good story to tell, and Obama should have stuck with it.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View's editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.