Story highlights

Obama tells graduating cadets they face "a different world" than when they started

America will be leading military, economically and with "the power of our ideals," he says

He touts end of Iraq war, killing of bin Laden, more cooperation with other nations

Colorado Springs, Colorado CNN  — 

President Barack Obama delivered a strong defense of his international leadership at the U.S. Air Force Academy on Wednesday, telling graduating cadets they’ll be building on “new era of American leadership.”

Obama told the incoming corps of second lieutenants they are stepping into “a different world” than the one the United States faced when they entered the academy in 2008.

“Four years ago, you arrived here at a time of extraordinary challenge for our nation. Our forces were engaged in two wars. Al Qaeda, which had attacked us on 9/11, was entrenched in their safe havens,” he said. “Many of our alliances were strained, and our standing in the world had suffered.”

Today, Obama said, “You are the first class in nine years that will graduate into a world where there are no Americans fighting in Iraq. For the first time in your lives – and thanks to Air Force personnel who did their part – Osama bin Laden is no longer a threat to our country. We’ve put al Qaeda on the path to defeat. And you are the first graduates since 9/11 who can see clearly how we’ll end the war in Afghanistan.”

Obama’s commencement address came as he faces an expected tough fight against former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. Recent polling, including an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey out Tuesday, shows voters give the president better marks for his handling of foreign affairs than the U.S. economy, consistently the top issue for voters.

At the Air Force Academy, Obama said his administration not only is bringing a decade of war to an end, “We’re doing so in a way that makes us safer and stronger.”

“Even as we’ve done the work of ending these wars, we’ve laid the foundation for a new era of American leadership,” Obama said. “And now, cadets, we have to build on it.”

Obama noted that the U.S. military, including the Air Force, “will be leaner” in the coming years, but he pledged to keep them “fast, flexible and versatile.” A new “American Century” will see the United States leading the world not only militarily, but economically, diplomatically and with “the power of our ideals,” he added, noting that how other countries view the United States “has consequences for our national security and for your lives.”

“See, when other countries and people see us as a partner, they’re more willing to work with us. It’s why more countries joined us in Afghanistan and Libya. It’s why nations like Australia are welcoming our forces, who stand side by side with allies and partners in the South Pacific. It’s why Uganda and its African neighbors have welcomed our trainers to help defeat a brutal army that slaughters its citizens.”