Skip to main content

President Obama's remarks at West Point

By CNN Staff
updated 11:59 AM EDT, Wed May 28, 2014

(CNN) -- Thank you so much.

Thank you. Thank you, General Caslen, for that introduction. To

General Trainor and General Clarke, the faculty and staff at West

Point, you have been outstanding stewards of this proud institution

and outstanding mentors for the newest officers in the United States

Army.

I'd like to acknowledge the Army's leadership, General McHugh --

Secretary McHugh, General Odierno, as well as Senator Jack Reed who is

here and a proud graduate of West Point himself. To the class of

2014, I congratulate you on taking your place on the Long Gray Line.

Among you is the first all-female command team: Erin Mauldin and

Austen Boroff. In Calla Glavin, you have a Rhodes Scholar, and Josh

Herbeck proves that West Point accuracy extends beyond the three-point

line.

To the entire class, let me reassure you in these final

hours at West Point, as commander in chief, I hereby absolve all

cadets who are on restriction for minor conduct offenses.

Let me just add that nobody ever did that for me when I was in

school.

I know you join me in extending a word of thanks to your

families.

Joe DeMoss, whose son James is graduating, spoke for a whole lot

of parents when he wrote me a letter about the sacrifices you've made.

"Deep inside," he wrote, "we want to explode with pride at what they

are committing to do in the service of our country." Like several

graduates, James is a combat veteran.

And I would ask all of us here today to stand and pay tribute,

not only to the veterans among us, but to the more than 2.5 million

Americans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as their

families.

This is a particularly useful time for America to reflect

on those who've sacrificed so much for our freedom. A few days after

Memorial Day. You are the first class to graduate since 9/11 who may

not be sent into combat in Iraq or Afghanistan.

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 counterterrorism efforts were focused on Al Qaeda's core

leadership, those who had carried out the 9/11 attacks. And our

nation was just beginning a long climb out of the worst economic

crisis since the Great Depression.

Four and a half years later, as you graduate, the landscape has

changed. We have removed our troops from Iraq. We are winding down

our war in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda's leadership on the border region

between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been decimated, and Osama bin

Laden is no more.

And, through it all, we have refocused our investments in what

has always been a key source of American strength, a growing economy

that can provide opportunity for everybody who's willing to work hard

and take responsibility here at home.

In fact, by most measures, America has rarely been stronger

relative to the rest of the world. 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.

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.

Meanwhile, our economy remains the most dynamic on Earth; our

businesses the most innovative. Each year, we grow more energy

independent. From Europe to Asia, we are the hub of alliances

unrivaled in the history of nations. America continues to attract

striving immigrants. The values of our founding inspire leaders in

parliaments and new movements in public squares around the globe. And

when a typhoon hits the Philippines, or schoolgirls are kidnapped in

Nigeria, or masked men occupy a building in Ukraine -- it is America

that the world looks to for help.

So the United States is and remains the one indispensable nation.

It has been true for the century passed, and will likely be true for

the century to come.

But the world is changing with accelerating speed. This

presents opportunity, but also new dangers. We know all too well,

after 9/11, just how technology and globalization has put power once

reserved for states in the hands of the individuals, raising the

capacity of terrorists to do harm. Russia's aggression towards former

Soviet states unnerves capitals in Europe, while China's economic rise

and military reach worries its neighbors.

From Brazil to India, rising middle classes compete with us, and

governments seek a greater say in global forums. And even as

developing nations embrace democracy and market economies, 24 hour

news and social media makes it impossible to ignore the continuation

of sectarian conflicts and failing states and popular uprisings that

might have received only passing notice a generation ago.

It will be your generation's task to respond to this new world.

The question we face, the question each of you will face is not

whether America will lead, but how we will lead, not just to secure

our peace and prosperity, but also extend peace and prosperity around

the globe.

Now, this question isn't new. At least since George Washington

served as commander-in-chief, there have been those who warned against

foreign entanglements that do not touch directly on our security or

economic well being. Today, according to self-described realists,

conflicts in Syria or Ukraine or the Central African Republic are not

ours to solve. And not surprisingly, after costly wars and continuing

challenges here at home, that view is shared by many Americans.

A different view from interventionists from the left and

the right says that we ignore these conflicts at our own peril, that

America's willingness to apply force around the world is the ultimate

safeguard against chaos, and America's failure to act in the face of

Syrian brutality or Russian provocations not only violates our

conscience, but invites escalating aggression in the future.

And each side can point to history to support its claims. But I

believe neither view fully speaks to the demands of this moment. It

is absolutely true that in the 21st century, American isolationism is

not an option. We don't have a choice to ignore what happens beyond

our borders. If nuclear materials are not secure, that poses a danger

to American citizens. As the Syrian civil war spills across borders,

the capacity of battle-hardened extremist groups to come after us only

increases.

Regional aggression that goes unchecked, whether in southern

Ukraine or the South China Sea, or anywhere else in the world, will

ultimately impact our allies and could draw in our military. We can't

ignore what happens beyond our boundaries. And beyond these narrow

rationales, I believe we have a real stake, abiding self-interest, in

making sure our children and our grandchildren grow up in a world

where school girls are not kidnapped, and where individuals are not

slaughtered because of tribe or faith or political belief.

I believe that a world of greater freedom and tolerance

is not only a moral imperative, it also helps keep us safe.

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.

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; without

leveling with the American people about the sacrifice required.

Tough talk often draws headlines, but war rarely conforms to

slogans. As General Eisenhower, someone with hard-earned knowledge on

this subject, said at this ceremony in 1947: "War is mankind's most

tragic and stupid folly; to seek or advise its deliberate provocation

is a black crime against all men."

Like Eisenhower, this generation of men and women in uniform know

all too well the wages of war. And that includes those of you here at

West Point. Four of the servicemembers who stood in the audience when

I announced the surge of our forces in Afghanistan gave their lives in

that effort. A lot more were wounded.

I believe America's security demanded those deployments. But I

am haunted by those deaths. I am haunted by those wounds. And I

would betray my duty to you, and to the country we love, if I ever

sent you into harm's way simply because I saw a problem somewhere in

the world that needed to be fixed, or because I was worried about

critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to

avoid looking weak.

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. Just because we have

the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail. And

because the costs associated with military action are so high, you

should expect every civilian leader -- and especially your commander

in chief -- to be clear about how that awesome power should be used.

So, let me spend the rest of my time describing my vision for how

the United States of America, and our military, should lead in the

years to come, for you will be part of that leadership.

First, let me repeat a principle I put forward at the

outset of my presidency: the United States will use military force,

unilaterally if necessary, when our core interests demand it, when our

people are threatened, when our livelihoods are at stake, when the

security of our allies is in danger.

In these circumstances, we still need to ask tough questions

about whether our actions are proportional and effective and just.

International opinion matters, but America should never ask permission

to protect our people, our homeland or our way of life.

On the other hand, when issues of global concern do not pose a

direct threat to the United States, when such issues are at stake,

when crises arrive that stir our conscience or push the world in a

more dangerous direction, but do not directly threaten us, then the

threshold for military action must be higher. In such circumstances,

we should not go it alone.

Instead, we must mobilize allies and partners to take collective

action. We have to broaden our tools to include diplomacy and

development, sanctions and isolation, appeals to international law,

and if just, necessary and effective, multilateral military action.

In such circumstances, we have to work with others because collective

action in these circumstances is more likely to succeed, more likely

to be sustained, less likely to lead to costly mistakes.

This leads to my second point. For the foreseeable future, the

most direct threat to America at home and abroad remains terrorism.

But a strategy that involves invading every country that harbors

terrorist networks is naive and unsustainable. I believe we must

shift our counterterrorism 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.

And the need for a new strategy reflects the fact that today's

principal threat no longer comes from a centralized Al Qaida

leadership. Instead, it comes from decentralized Al Qaida affiliates

and extremists, many with agendas focused in countries where they

operate. And this lessens the possibility of large-scale 9/11-style

attacks against the homeland, but it heightens the danger of U.S.

personnel overseas being attacked, as we saw in Benghazi. It

heightens the danger to less defensible targets, as we saw in a

shopping mall in Nairobi.

So we have to develop a strategy that matches this diffuse

threat, one that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch

our military too thin or stir up local resentments. We need partners

to fight terrorists along-side us. And empowering partners is a large

part of what we have done and what we are currently doing in

Afghanistan.

Together with our allies, America struck huge blows

against Al Qaida core and pushed back against an insurgency that

threatened to overrun the country.

But sustaining this progress depends on the ability of Afghans to

do the job. And that's why we trained hundreds of thousands of Afghan

soldiers and police. Earlier this spring, those forces, those Afghan

forces, secured an election in which Afghans voted for the first

democratic transfer of power in their history. And at the end of this

year, a new Afghan President will be in office, and America's combat

mission will be over.

Now, that was an enormous achievement made because of America's

armed forces. But as we move to a train and advise mission in

Afghanistan, our reduced presence there allows us to more effectively

address emerging threats in the Middle East and North Africa. So

earlier this year, I asked my national security team to develop a plan

for a network of partnerships from South Asia to the Sahel. Today, as

part of this effort, I am calling on Congress to support a new

Counter-Terrorism Partnerships Fund of up to $5 billion, which will

allow us to train, build capacity, and facilitate partner countries on

the front lines. And these resources will give us flexibility to

fulfill different missions, including training security forces in

Yemen who have gone on the offensive against al Qaida; supporting a

multinational force to keep the peace in Somalia; working with

European allies to train a functioning security force and border

patrol in Libya; and facilitating French operations in Mali.

A critical focus of this effort will be the ongoing

crisis in Syria. As frustrating as it is, there are no easy answers

there. No military solution that can eliminate the terrible suffering

any time soon.

As president, I made a decision that we should not put American

troops into the middle of this increasingly sectarian war, and I

believe that is the right decision. But that does not mean we

shouldn't help the Syrian people stand up against a dictator who bombs

and starves his own people. And in helping those who fight for the

right of all Syrians to choose their own future, we are also pushing

back against the growing number of extremists who find safe haven in

the chaos.

So 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 contend with refugees and confront terrorists

working across Syria's borders. I will work with Congress to ramp up

support for those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best

alternative to terrorists and brutal dictators. And we will continue

to coordinate with our friends in Europe and the Arab world to push

for a political resolution of this crisis, and to make sure that those

countries and not just the United States are contributing their fair

share to support the Syrian people.

Let me make one final point about our efforts against terrorism.

The partnerships I described do not eliminate the need to take direct

action, when necessary, to protect ourselves. 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've

carried out in Yemen and Somalia.

There are times when those actions are necessary, and we cannot

hesitate to protect our people, 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 no certainty -- 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.

I also believe we must be more transparent about both the basis

of our counter-terrorism actions and the manner in which they are

carried out. We have to be able to explain them publicly, whether it

is drone strikes or trading partners. I will increasingly turn to our

military to take the lead and provide information to the public about

our efforts.

Our intelligence community has done outstanding work, and we have

to continue to protect sources and methods, but when we cannot explain

our efforts clearly and publicly, we face terrorist propaganda and

international suspicion, we erode legitimacy with our partners and our

people, and we reduce accountability in our own government.

And this issue of transparency is directly relevant to a

third aspect of American leadership, and that is our effort to

strengthen and enforce international order.

After World War II, America had the wisdom to shape institutions

to keep the peace and support human progress, from NATO and the United

Nations, to the World Bank and IMF. These institutions are not

perfect, but they have been a force multiplier. They reduce the need

for unilateral American action and increase restraint among other

nations.

Now, just as the world has changed, this architecture must change

as well. At the height of the Cold War, President Kennedy spoke about

the need for a peace based upon "a gradual evolution in human

institutions." And evolving these international institutions to meet

the demands of today must be a critical part of American leadership.

Now, there are a lot of folks, a lot of skeptics, who often

downplay the effectiveness of multilateral action. For them, working

through international institutions, like the U.N., or respecting

international law is a sign of weakness. I think they're wrong. Let

me offer just two examples why.

In Ukraine, Russia's recent actions recall the days when Soviet

tanks rolled into Eastern Europe. But this isn't the Cold War. Our

ability to shape world opinion helped isolate Russia right away.

Because of American leadership, the world immediately condemned the

Russian actions. Europe and the G-7 joined us to impose sanctions.

NATO reinforced our commitment to Eastern European allies. The IMF is

helping to stabilize Ukraine's economy. OSCE monitors brought the

eyes of the world to unstable parts of Ukraine. And this mobilization

of world opinion and international institutions served as a

counterweight to Russian propaganda and Russian troops on the border

and armed militias in ski masks.

This weekend, Ukrainians voted by the millions. Yesterday, I

spoke to their next president. We don't know how the situation will

play out, and there will remain grave challenges ahead. But standing

with our allies on behalf of international order, working with

international institutions, has given a chance for the Ukrainian

people to choose their future, without us firing a shot.

Similarly, despite frequent warnings from the United States and

Israel and others, the Iranian nuclear program steadily advanced for

years. At the beginning of my presidency, we built a coalition that

imposed sanctions on the Iranian economy, while extending the hand of

diplomacy to the Iranian government.

And now, we have an opportunity to resolve our differences

peacefully. The odds of success are still long, and we reserve all

options to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. But for the

first time in a decade, we have a very real chance of achieving a

breakthrough agreement, one that is more effective and durable than

what we could have achieved through the use of force. And throughout

these negotiations, it has been our willingness to work through

multilateral channels that kept the world on our side.

The point is, this is American leadership; this is

American strength. In each case, we built coalitions to respond to a

specific challenge. Now we need to do more to strengthen the

institutions that can anticipate and prevent problems from spreading.

For example, NATO is the strongest alliance the world has ever

known. But we're now working with NATO allies to meet new missions --

both within Europe, where our Eastern allies must be reassured; and

also beyond Europe's borders, where our NATO allies have to pull their

weight to counterterrorism and respond to failed states, and train a

network of partners.

Likewise, the U.N. provides a platform to keep the peace in

states torn apart by conflict. Now we need to make sure that those

nations who provide peacekeepers have the training and equipment to

actually keep the peace, so we can prevent the type of killing we've

seen in Congo and Sudan. We are going to deepen our investment in

countries that support these missions. Because having other nations

maintain order in their own neighborhoods lessens the need for us to

put our own troops in harm's way. It's a smart investment. It's the

right way to lead.

Keep in mind, not all international norms relate directly to

armed conflict. We have a serious problem with cyber-attacks, which

is why we're working to shape and enforce rules of the road to secure

our networks and our citizens.

In the Asia Pacific, we're supporting Southeast Asian

nations as they negotiate a code of conduct with China on maritime

disputes in the South China Sea, and we're working to resolve these

disputes through international law.

That spirit of cooperation needs to energize the global effort to

combat climate change, a creeping national security crisis that will

help shape your time in uniform as we are called on to respond to

refugee flows and natural disasters and conflicts over water and food.

Which is why next year, I intend to make sure America is out front in

putting together a global framework to preserve our planet.

You see, American influence is always stronger when we lead by

example. We can't exempt ourselves from the rules that apply to

everybody else. We can't call on others to make commitments to combat

climate change if a whole lot of our political leaders deny that it's

taking place.

We can't try to resolve problems in the South China Sea when we

have refused to make sure that the Law of the Sea Convention is

ratified by the United States Senate, despite that fact that our top

military leaders say the treaty advances our national security.

That's not leadership. That's retreat. That's not strength. That's

weakness. It would be utterly foreign to leaders like Roosevelt and

Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy.

I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my

being. But what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout

international norms and the rule of law. It is our willingness to

affirm them through our actions.

And that's why I will continue to push to close Gitmo, because

American values and legal traditions do not permit the indefinite

detention of people beyond our borders.

That's why we're putting in place new restrictions on how America

collects and uses intelligence, because will have fewer partners and

be less effective if a perception takes hold that we're conducting

surveillance against ordinary citizens.

America does not simply stand for stability or the absence of

conflict no matter what the cost. We stand for the more lasting peace

that can only come through opportunity and freedom for people

everywhere.

Which brings me to the fourth and final element of American

leadership -- our willingness to act on behalf of human dignity.

America's support for democracy and human rights goes beyond idealism.

It is a matter of national security. Democracies are our closest

friends and are far less likely to go to war.

Economies based on free and open markets perform better and

become markets for our goods. Respect for human rights is an antidote

to instability and the grievances that fuel violence and terror. A

new century has brought no end to tyranny. In capitals around the

globe, including unfortunately some of America's partners, there's

been a crackdown on civil society. The cancer of corruption has

enriched too many governments and their cronies and enraged citizens

from remote villages to iconic squares.

And watching these trends, or the violent upheavals in

parts of the Arab world, it's easy to be cynical.

But remember that because of America's efforts, because of

American diplomacy and foreign assistance, as well as the sacrifices

of our military, more people live under elected governments today than

at any time in human history. Technology is empowering civil society

in ways that no iron fist can control. New breakthroughs are lifting

of hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, and even the

upheaval of the Arab world reflects the rejection of an authoritarian

order that was anything but stable, and now offers the long-term

prospect of more responsive and effective governance.

In countries like Egypt, we acknowledge that our relationship is

anchored in security interests, from peace treaties to Israel to

shared efforts against violent extremism.

So, we have not cut off cooperation with the new government, but

we can and will persistently press for reforms that the Egyptian

people have demanded. And meanwhile, look at a country like Burma,

which only a few years ago was an intractable dictatorship and hostile

to the United States. 40 million people. Thanks to the enormous

courage of the people in that country, and because we took the

diplomatic initiative, American leadership, we have seen political

reforms opening a once-closed society. A movement by Burmese

leadership away from partnership with North Korea, in favor of

engagement with America and our allies.

We're now supporting reform and badly needed national

reconciliation through assistance and investment, through coaxing and,

at times, public criticism.

And progress there could be reversed. But if Burma succeeds, we

will have gained a new partner without having fired a shot. American

leadership.

In each these cases, we should not expect change to happen

overnight. That's why we form alliances, not just with governments,

but also with ordinary people. For, unlike other nations, America is

not afraid of individual empowerment. We are strengthened by it.

We're strengthened by civil society. We're strengthened by a free

press. We're strengthened by striving entrepreneurs and small

businesses. We're strengthened by our educational exchange and

opportunity for all people, and women and girls. That's who we are.

That's what we represent.

I saw that through the trip to Africa last year, where American

assistance has made possible the prospect of an AIDS-free generation,

while helping Africans care themselves for their sick. We're helping

farmers get their products to market, to feed populations once

endangered by famine. We aim to double access to electricity in sub-

Saharan Africa, so people are connected to the promises of the global

economy.

And all this creates new partners and shrinks the space

for terrorism and conflict.

Now, tragically, no American security operation can eradicate the

threat posed by an extremist group like Boko Haram, the group that

kidnapped those girls. And that's why we ought to focus not just on

rescuing those girls right away, but also on supporting Nigerian

efforts to educate its youth. It should be one of the hard-earned

lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, where our military became the

strongest advocate for diplomacy and development. They understood

that foreign assistance is not an afterthought -- something nice to do

apart from our national defense, apart from our national security. It

is part of what makes us strong.

Ultimately, global leadership requires us to see the world as it

is, with all its danger and uncertainty. We have to be prepared for

the worst, prepared for every contingency. 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 a direction of justice.

And we cannot do that without you.

Class of 2014, you have taken this time to prepare on the

quiet banks of the Hudson. You leave this place to carry forward a

legacy that no other military in human history can claim. You do so

as part of a team that extends beyond your units or even our armed

forces, where in the course of your service, you will work as a team

with diplomats and development experts. You'll get to know allies and

train partners. And you will embody what it means for America to lead

the world.

Next week, I will go to Normandy, to honor the men who stormed

the beaches there. And while it's hard for many Americans to

comprehend the courage and sense of duty that guided those who boarded

small ships, it's familiar to you. At West Point, you defined what it

means to be a patriot.

Three years ago, Gavin White graduated from this academy. He

then served in Afghanistan. Like the soldiers who came before him,

Gavin was in a foreign land, helping people he'd never met, putting

himself in harm's way for the sake of his community and his family, of

the folks back home.

Gavin lost one of his legs in an attack. I met him last

year at Walter Reed. He was wounded, but just as determined as the

day that he arrived here at West Point, and he developed a simple

goal. Today, his sister Morgan will graduate, and true to his

promise, Gavin will be there to stand and exchange salutes with her.

We have been through a long season of war. We have faced trials

that were not foreseen. And we've seen the visions about how to move

forward.

But there is something in Gavin's character -- there is something

in the American character that will always triumph. Leaving here, you

carry with you the respect of your fellow citizens. You will

represent a nation with history and hope on our side.

Your charge now is not only to protect our country, but to do

what is right and just. As your commander in chief, I know you will.

May God bless you. May God bless our men and women in uniform.

And may God bless the United States of America.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT