Obama’s West Point Salute: National Security Played Forward

President Barack Obama arrives to deliver the commencement address at the U.S. Military Academy to West Point's Class of 2014,  on May 28, 2014.

Photograph by Susan Walsh/AP Photo

President Barack Obama arrives to deliver the commencement address at the U.S. Military Academy to West Point’s Class of 2014, on May 28, 2014.

Updated at 11:11 am EDT  following speech

Entering a post-war period in modern American history, President Barack Obama said today that the U.S. “has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world” and cannot relinquish its leadership on the world stage.

Asserting that “isolationism is not an option,” the president sought to frame a strategy for confronting the threats of a changing battleground, with a stepped-up focus on combating terrorism. It is a strategy of military restraint and yet a resolve to act when necessary, while refraining from engagements that threaten to “create more enemies than we take off the battlefield” — an implicit lesson of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Just because we have the best hammer,” the president told the newest class of Army officers, “does not mean that every problem is a nail.”

The president, on his platform at the commencement ceremony at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point today, added two impromptu and repeating lines to a long prepared speech about the challenge going forward:  “We don’t have a choice to ignore what happens beyond our borders,” Obama said on the question of isolationism.  “We cannot ignore what happens beyond our boundaries.”

“Those who argue otherwise – who suggest that America is in decline, or has seen its global leadership slip away – are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics,” Obama said in his address. “Think about it. Our military has no peer. The odds of a direct threat against us by any nation are low, and do not come close to the dangers we faced during the Cold War…”

“It is absolutely true that in the 21st Century, American isolationism is not an option,” Obama said. “If nuclear materials are not secure, that could pose a danger in American citizens. As the Syrian civil war spills across borders, the capacity of battle-hardened groups to come after us increases. Regional aggression that goes unchecked – in southern Ukraine, the South China Sea, or anywhere else in the world – will ultimately impact our allies, and could draw in our military…”

“But to say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution,” he said. “Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint, but from our willingness to rush into military adventures – without thinking through the consequences; without building international support and legitimacy for our action, or leveling with the American people about the sacrifice required. Tough talk often draws headlines, but war rarely conforms to slogans… ”

“Here’s my bottom line: America must always lead on the world stage. If we don’t, no one else will. The military that you have joined is, and always will be, the backbone of that leadership. But U.S. military action cannot be the only – or even primary – component of our leadership in every instance.”

As the administration this week announced a timetable for the final draw-down of troops from Afghanistan — exiting by the end of 2016 —  the president devoted his appearance today to a focus on national security policy going forward.

“We know all too well, after 9/11, just how technology and globalization has put power once reserved for states in the hands of individuals, raising the capacity of terrorists to do harm,” the president said. “Russia’s aggression toward former Soviet states unnerves capitals in Europe, while China’s economic rise and military reach worries its neighbors. ”

“It is a particularly useful time for America to reflect on those who have sacrificed so much for our freedom – for you are the first class to graduate since 9/11 who may not be sent into combat in Iraq or Afghanistan,” Obama told the West Point graduating class. “When I first spoke at West Point in 2009, we still had more than 100,000 troops in Iraq. We were preparing to surge in Afghanistan. Our counter-terrorism efforts were focused on al Qaeda’s core leadership.”

“Four and a half years later, the landscape has changed,” he said. “We have removed our troops from Iraq. We are winding down our war in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda’s leadership in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been decimated, and Osama bin Laden is no more…”

“For the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America at home and abroad remains terrorism,” Obama said. “But a strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naïve and unsustainable. I believe we must shift our counter-terrorism strategy – drawing on the successes and shortcomings of our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan – to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold.”

As the U.S. war in Afghanistan winds down and the war in Iraq fades into modern history, the president today announced a new focus on financing the fight against terrorism.

The White House is calling on Congress to authorize a $5-billion Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund (CTPF), “which will provide the flexibility and resources required to respond to emerging needs as terrorist threats around the world continue to evolve,” according to the press secretary. (The $5 billion represents the cost of about a month of the scaled-back war in Afghanistan.)

The fund “will build on existing tools and authorities to allow the Administration to respond to evolving terrorist threats,” the White House says. “It will allow us to pursue a more sustainable and effective approach to combating terrorism that focuses on empowering and enabling our partners around the globe. In support of these counterterrorism capacity-building efforts, the administration will also request funding for expanded or enhanced DOD activities, such as Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance; Special Operations; and other activities. ”

This will allow the Defense Department to conduct expanded training and equipping of other other agencies,  “more effectively facilitate and enable the counterterrorism efforts of our partners on the front lines,” the White House says.  Working with the State Department, this is to “provide security and stabilization assistance, as well as support efforts to counter violent extremism and terrorist ideology.”

“With the additional resources I’m announcing today, we will step up our efforts to support Syria’s neighbors – Jordan and Lebanon; Turkey and Iraq – as they host refugees, and confront terrorists working across Syrian borders,” Obama was saying at West Point. “I will work with Congress to ramp up support for those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists and a brutal dictator. And we will continue to coordinate with our friends and allies in Europe and the Arab World – to push for a political resolution of this crisis, and make sure that those countries, and not just the United States, are contributing their fair share of support to the Syrian people.”

“The partnership I’ve described does not eliminate the need to take direct action when necessary to protect ourselves,” he was saying. “When we have actionable intelligence, that’s what we do – through capture operations, like the one that brought a terrorist involved in the plot to bomb our Embassies in 1998 to face justice; or drone strikes, like those we have carried out in Yemen and Somalia. But as I said last year, in taking direct action, we must uphold standards that reflect our values. That means taking strikes only when we face a continuing, imminent threat, and only where there is near certainty of no civilian casualties. For our actions should meet a simple test: we must not create more enemies than we take off the battlefield.”

The West Point graduating class of officers whom the president addressed today will be the first in a long time who won’t deploy to Afghanistan or Iraq, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney suggested today before the president’s speech.

The president announced yesterday that the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan will end at year’s end, with the military playing only a supporting role — training Afghan forces and supporting intelligence and operations there — until the eventual American withdrawal at the end of 2016. The U.S. will leave 9,800 troops there next year, Obama said, and that number will be cut in half by the end of 2015.

That would seem to leave at least some room for those graduating from West Point today to see a leadership tour of some sort in Afghanistan — though likely not in direct combat.

“Ultimately, global leadership requires us to see the world as it is, with all its danger and uncertainty,” the president told the West Point class. “But American leadership also requires us to see the world as it should be – a place where the aspirations of individual human beings really matters; where hopes and not just fears govern; where the truths written into our founding documents can steer the currents of history in the direction of justice.”


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