Obama to West Point grads: Success in Iraq, progress in Afghanistan

President Obama told graduating cadets at the West Point military academy that America’s security abroad must be matched by a revitalized US economy.

J. Scott Applewhite
President Barack Obama congratulates a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, NY, Saturday.

President Obama told graduating cadets at the West Point military academy’s commencement ceremony Saturday morning that America’s strength abroad begins at home – and that the future military leaders’ service in the name of America’s security abroad must be matched by a revitalized US economy.

While focusing much of his speech on a theme of America’s 21st-century leadership, the president also gave a sneak preview of his own version of “mission accomplished” that he is likely to invoke when the last US combat troops leave Iraq this summer. Mr. Obama called the US engagement in Iraq a “success,” and he said he has no doubts that the graduates before him would someday be able to say the same of the US campaign in Afghanistan.

But the president’s broader point was that America’s civilian and domestic progress, particularly in the economic field, must match the vigor of its military.

“At no time in human history has a nation of diminished economic vitality maintained its military and political primacy,” Mr. Obama told the 1,311 graduates and their families assembled in the US Military Academy’s Michie Stadium. Adding that “We cannot simply leave it to those with uniforms to defend this country,” he said “the civilians among us” much ensure that “American innovation” in areas like clean energy, the sciences, and education, remains “the foundation of American power.”

Expanding beyond that perennial theme, the president also used his West Point speech to offer a defense of his foreign policy priority on expanding America’s ties to rising global powers like China and India. In a retort to critics who say his administration is allowing traditional alliances to fall into disrepair, Obama said a changing world demands that the US do both: maintain old alliances while building new ones.

Insisting the US “must…shape an international order that can meet the challenges of our generation,” he said “we will be steadfast in strengthening…old alliances… [but] we must also build new partnerships and shape stronger international standards and institutions.”

Obama referred repeatedly to the US engagement in Afghanistan, noting that he chose West Point as the venue for unveiling his new Afghanistan strategy six months ago. But he also used his speech to speak about the seven-year war in Iraq in a way that may have been bittersweet for former president George Bush.

“This is what success looks like,” he said, noting that departing US combat troops will leave behind a “democratic” and “sovereign” Iraq that is “no haven” for the kind of violent extremists that attacked the US on Sept. 11, 2001.

President Bush was criticized and lampooned for his frequent insistence that the Iraq war was delivering a “democratic” Iraq the US could work with instead of worry about. But recently even some critics have begun to acknowledge the positive results of a long and costly war.

Beyond “success’ in Iraq, Obama said the US is also seeing progress in Afghanistan. And while he noted that the 2010 West Point commencement is the ninth held with the nation in a state of war, he said that broader battle with violent extremism is also making important advances.

In an oblique reference to the failed car bombing attempt last month in New York’s Times Square, Obama said “recent attempts show Al Qaeda is forced to rely on terrorists with less time to train.” The unspoken comparison was to the 9/11 hijackers, who trained extensively before carrying out their mission.

And while “Al Qaeda and its affiliates” continue to target America, the president said Americans have not bowed to their threats.

“The terrorists want to scare us,” he said, “but New Yorkers go about their lives unafraid.”


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