President Obama told the Veterans of Foreign Wars Monday that he has kept the promises he made to them as a candidate four years ago – to wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to “take the fight to Al Qaeda,” and to renew America’s global leadership – and said it is now time to turn America’s focus to serving the thousands of veterans who after a decade of war will be returning to civilian life.
Mr. Obama spoke to the VFW convention in Reno, Nev., at the top of a week that promises to shift the presidential campaign, if only so slightly, from the economy to foreign policy.
Following Obama, Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, will address the VFW convention on Tuesday, before he heads overseas on a seven-day, three-country trip designed to demonstrate his “statesman” qualities to American voters.
The president mentioned neither his reelection campaign nor his Republican rival in his speech, choosing instead to emphasize what he has done as commander-in-chief. But it was clear from Obama’s emphasis on his “track record” and “the promises I’ve made and the promises I’ve kept” that the president was unveiling the theme he plans to take into November to contrast his foreign-policy record with Governor Romney’s lack of one.
Obama said that under his leadership America is “winding down a decade of war while strengthening our alliances around the globe,” adding, “because we are leading around the world, the world has a new attitude about America.”
Not surprisingly, the president spoke of what some foreign-policy analysts consider the standout accomplishment of his administration: the mission that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden.
Obama reminded the veterans that he had “pledged to take out the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11… even if it meant going into Pakistan.” With a salute to the “men and women in uniform” who have carried out the counterterrorist operations, he added, “Osama bin Laden will never threaten America again, and Al Qaeda is on the road to defeat.”
But the president also spoke of what he called “a new era of American leadership” that he suggested would, at least in his vision of it, rely less on military power and more on diplomatic efforts. To underscore his point, he offered a list of both broad and specific foreign-policy challenges – the threat of nuclear proliferation, democratization in the Middle East as a result of the Arab spring, the imposition of strong new sanctions on Iran and North Korea over their nuclear programs, and the effort for a political transition in Syria – as areas where he said the US is leading international diplomatic efforts.
Obama spent little time in his speech on Syria, but his critics on the issue continued to attack the president for failing to lead as Syria’s death count rises.
Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, Obama’s opponent in 2008, on Monday called US policy in Syria “shameful” and said it was “disgraceful” that Obama has refused to intervene more forcefully in the country’s conflict. Senator McCain is one of a group of congressional leaders who say the US should, for example, establish a no-fly zone along Syria’s border with Turkey and begin supplying arms to the rebels.
“The president does not believe in American exceptionalism and doesn’t want America to lead,” McCain said in an interview Monday on Fox News.
A few hours later, Obama told the VFW that America is “the one indispensable nation in world affairs,” and that it is America’s veterans who “have kept us strong.”
Obama has not always had an easy relationship with veterans’ organizations. But he broke into his trademark grin when the VFW commander-in-chief, Richard de Noyer, introduced the president as someone “raised with Midwestern values.” And he won sustained applause as he listed the advances his administration has won for veterans, including improved health care, tax breaks to employers who hire veterans, and what he said are “fewer and shorter deployments.”
The president also gave a brief mention to the looming automatic cuts to defense spending under the last-ditch budget agreement known as sequestration, saying “there is no reason those cuts in defense spending should happen” and placing the onus on Republicans in Congress to agree on a compromise alternative.
And Obama pledged that it will be “all hands on deck” – presumably he meant in a second Obama administration – to address the scourge of post-traumatic stress disorder in the nation’s returning veterans.
Noting that the US now loses more troops to suicide than in combat, the president said, “That’s a tragedy, it’s heartbreaking – that should not be happening in the United States of America.”