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Editorial: World events challenge U.S. to be versatile

In this May 22, 2010 file photo, President

In this May 22, 2010 file photo, President Barack Obama outlined a foreign policy vision using diplomacy and a strong military together, in West Point, N.Y. while addressing the graduates of the U.S. Military Academy. Credit: AP / J. Scott Applewhite

Criticized for a foreign policy that sometimes looks like no policy at all, President Barack Obama on Wednesday laid out a conceptual framework for his approach to U.S. leadership in the world. He provided some clarity to his worldview, but not much that is new.

Obama chose West Point, the epicenter of the nation's military culture, to deliver his message that military action can't be the only, or even the primary component of our leadership.

The military remains the backbone of U.S. foreign policy. But one day after reiterating the imminent end of the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan, Obama said armed intervention alone isn't enough to meet diffuse threats, such as terrorism, that can come from individuals and groups rather than nations. Doing that requires embracing a range of tools, including multilateral economic sanctions, partnerships with states on the front lines, development aid and working through international coalitions and institutions.

That's a pretty good description of how Obama has conducted foreign policy for the past six years. He has two years left to demonstrate that it's an effective approach for the nation -- for instance, in difficult hot spots such as Syria and Ukraine.

The Obama way can be frustrating. It demands acknowledging the limits of the nation's ability to control events. It takes patience. And critics will insist it's a prescription for weakness. But it's a pragmatic approach in sync with the popular view. One lesson from a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, with its muddled outcomes, is that the nation needs ways other than deploying the military to work its will.

Things were simpler when national security threats came only from other nations. There was some comfort in the certainty of those set pieces. Our threats today are more unpredictable and complex, and our response must be more versatile.