-- In a wide-ranging, campaign-style rebuttal of Republican attacks on his handling of world affairs, President Barack Obama said on Wednesday that "exceptional" America had "led from the front" in the Libyan war.
Delivering the commencement speech at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Obama was clearly taking aim at conservative criticisms that he does not believe in American exceptionalism and that he has settled for a "lead from behind" strategy in Libya and elsewhere.
Obama recited some of what he considers his top foreign policy achievements, including "preventing a massacre in Libya with an international mission in which the United States—and our Air Force—led from the front."
"The United States has been, and will always be, the one indispensable nation in world affairs," he told the cadets. "America is exceptional."
"I see an American Century because no other nation seeks the role that we play in global affairs, and no other nation can play the role that we play in global affairs," Obama said.
"No other nation has sacrificed more—in treasure, in the lives of our sons and daughters—so that these freedoms could take root and flourish around the world," the president said. "And no other nation has made the advancement of human rights and dignity so central to its foreign policy."
Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has repeatedly made an issue on the campaign trail of Obama's relationship to "American exceptionalism."
"Our president doesn't have the same feelings about American exceptionalism that we do," Romney said as he stumped in Wisconsin in March. "And I think over the last three or four years, some people around the world have begun to question that."
"After terming it a 'Pacific Century' these past few months, we're glad President Obama has had an election-season conversion to Gov. Romney's long-held view that this century must be an American Century," Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul wrote in an email to Yahoo News. "Next up: the President will roll back his devastating cuts to defense. Or at least we hope so." (A search of the White House web site shows Obama has been talking about the "responsibility" to usher in a new "American Century" since at least February 2009.)
And Republican Senator John McCain, a frequent and vocal critic of the president on national security, charged as recently as May 16 that when it comes to Syria, " this Administration leads from behind." Obama has refused to arm the outgunned opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but has tacitly condoned countries that are doing so, according to recent reports.
(The description has its origins in a May 2011 New Yorker piece, which quotes an anonymous Obama advisor using the phrase "leading from behind" to describe the American approach to Libya, where Washington took a self-effacing role while NATO officially assumed the lead — ostensibly to avoid risking the loss of support if the operation were seen as a purely American mission.)
Obama also took aim at Republicans who accuse him of seeking reductions in military spending they say will hurt national security. Romney recently blamed the president for the painful automatic cuts a bipartisan majority of Congress approved to force its so-called "SuperCommittee" to agree on a debt-trimming deal. It failed, and Republicans now say they want out of the cuts.
Obama, who in January outlined a plan to shave $487 billion over the next ten years, told the cadets that the military would be "leaner" but promised "we will maintain our military superiority in all areas—air, land, sea, space and cyber."
The president did not explicitly take on criticisms that he hasn't been forceful enough in pushing China on human rights, or that his "reset" of relations with Russia has been mostly give, little get.
But he stressed that "when fundamental human rights are threatened around the world, we stand up and speak out" and emphasized that "we know that the sovereignty of nations cannot strangle the liberty of individuals."
Earlier, his campaign sent reporters video of Colin Powell taking Romney to task on MSNBC for saying recently that Russia "is, without question, our number one geopolitical foe."
"When Governor Romney, not too long ago, said, you know, the Russian Federation is our number one geostrategic threat, well, come on, Mitt, think. That isn't the case," Powell said.
Foreign policy is unlikely to be the deciding factor of the election — that would be the struggling economy. But Obama's campaign has used it as a weapon against Romney, notably with an ad suggesting that the Republican might not have given the order to carry out the May 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
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