Obama addresses Academy graduates

  • Published
  • By Jim Garamone
  • DoD News, Defense Media Activity
President Barack Obama shared with the graduating cadets of the U.S. Air Force Academy some of the lessons he has learned in more than seven years as president and commander in chief during a June 2 commencement ceremony in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

The president addressed the 812 new second lieutenants and discussed lessons he had learned about national security. The president also saluted Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, who’s slated to retire as the top officer in his service.

Obama told the new Air Force officers to continue to be guided by honest and clear-eyed assessments. “Remember what you learned at this Academy, the importance of evidence and facts and judgment,” he said. “And here is a fact: The United States of America remains the most powerful nation on Earth and a force for good.”

Challenges remain

The president said there are challenges that must be addressed, but the U.S. still has the world’s strongest economy -- one noted for innovation – and the nation still attracts and retains the best minds in the world.

“Our values -- freedom, equality, opportunity -- … inspire people everywhere, including immigrants who come here ready to work and integrate and help renew our country,” the president said.

America’s standing in the world is high, Obama said, something he said he notices wherever he travels.

“Make no mistake, the United States is better positioned to lead in the 21st century than any other nation,” he said.

Another fact, he said, is that the U.S. military remains the strongest in world. “Our military is the most capable fighting force on the planet,” Obama said. “It is not close.”

He continued, “And as for our Airmen: with your unequaled vigilance and reach, unrivaled fifth-generation fighters, a new generation of remotely piloted aircraft pilots, astonishing precision that calls to mind your actual class motto, ‘On target, on time,’ nobody can match America's Air Force.”

Joint force provides advantage

But it’s the joint force that provides the American military its advantage, the president said. He described an operation against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in Syria last year as an example.

“Air Force aircraft provided surveillance. Navy (fast attack) teams provided close air support. Army aviation assets delivered as special operators an assault force of Marines and Soldiers to the target,” he said. “And one of ISIL's top leaders, Abu Sayyaf, was eliminated.”

The U.S. must maintain that advantage, the president said.

Another fact is that even with all the turmoil in the world, this is a most peaceful and prosperous era in history, he said.

“For decades there have been no wars between major powers,” Obama said. “Wars between nations are increasingly rare. More people live in democracies. More than 1 billion people have been lifted from extreme poverty.”

He added, “From the Americas to Africa, to Southeast Asia, there is a new generation of young people connected by technology and ready to make their mark. I've met them. They look up to America. They aspire to be our partner. That is the progress and the hope that we have to build on.”

The U.S. is well positioned, but there are serious threats still out there, the president said. Terrorist networks, ISIL, Russia, disputes in the South China Sea, North Korean nuclear threats, Iran, all these “are testing an international order that we built, where the sovereignty of nations is respected and all nations abide by the same rules,” Obama said.
“How to meet these threats while also seizing the incredible opportunities of this moment in history, that is going to be your challenge, the challenge of your generation.”

Living in a complex world

American leadership is needed in today’s complex global environment, the president said. “As we navigate this complex world, America cannot shirk the mantle of leadership. We can't be isolationists. It's not possible in this globalized, interconnected world,” Obama said.

Embracing isolationism provides “a false comfort,” he said. “Allowing problems to fester over there makes us less secure here.”

The president noted that one of the most effective ways to lead and work with others is through treaties that advance U.S. interests. He deviated a bit from his prepared remarks and told the cadets that “there has been a mindset in Congress that just about any international treaty is somehow a violation of American sovereignty, and so the Senate almost never approves treaties anymore.”

Treaties govern many things, including international phone calls and mail service. The treaties that established the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and limit nuclear weapons, “help keep us safe,” the president said.

“So, if we’re truly concerned about China's actions in the South China Sea, for example, the Senate should help strengthen our case by approving the Law of the Sea Convention, as our military leaders have urged,” Obama said. “It’s time for the Senate to do its job and help us advance American leadership, rather than undermine it.”

The U.S. has many alliances and they provide the foundation for global stability and prosperity, the president said. “On just about every issue, the world looks to us to set the agenda,” he said. “When there is a problem around the world, they do not call Beijing or Moscow. They call us.”

Perceiving threats

Leading widely also means seeing threats clearly, the president told the new officers. Ebola hemorrhagic fever was a serious threat and U.S. leaders took it seriously. “But in the midst of it, there was hysteria,” he said.

“The thing is, when we panic, we don't make good decisions,” he said. “So, with Ebola, instead of responding with fear, we responded with facts, and responded with science and organization. And thanks to a coordinated global response enabled by the American military and our medical workers who got in there first, we stopped the spread of Ebola in West Africa and saved countless lives and protected ourselves.”

The U.S. must engage with the rest of the world, but that doesn’t mean intervening militarily every time there is a problem or crisis, he said. “History is littered with the ruins of empires and nations that overextended themselves, draining their power and influence,” Obama said. “And so, we have to chart a smarter path.”

He told the cadets that they must “be hard-headed and big-hearted, guided by realism and idealism. And even when these forces are sometimes at odds, we have got to have the realism to see the world as it is, where sometimes uncomfortable compromises are necessary, where we have the humility to recognize that there are limits to what even a nation as powerful as ours can do.”

Fighting terrorism

There will be times when military force is necessary, the president said. “As commander in chief, I have not hesitated to use force unilaterally where necessary to protect the American people,” he said. “Thanks to our military, intelligence, and counterterrorism professionals, (Osama) bin Laden is gone. Anwar al-Awlaki, a leader of the al Qaida-affiliated Yemen, is gone. Ahmed Abdi Godane, the al-Qaida leader in Somalia; he's gone. Ahmed Abu Khattala, accused in the attacks in Benghazi; captured. Mohamed Mansour, the leader of the Taliban; gone.”

The president has a message for those who seek to terrorize America: “If you target Americans we will find you, and justice will be done and we will defend our nation,” Obama said.

It is right to celebrate the courage service members demonstrate in war, but it is not right to celebrate war, the president said.

“We have a solemn responsibility to these Americans who sacrifice in our name,” Obama said. “We have a responsibility to be guided by intelligence and not ideology. And to never rush into war and explore other options first, because sending our troops into harm’s way must always be a last resort.”

While the U.S. will act unilaterally if necessary, allies are tremendously important, the president said. The United States, he said, works with coalitions in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

“These terrorists are learning the same lesson as others before them: You will never be strong enough to destroy America or our way of life; You are going to lose, and part of that is because we're on the right side of history and part of it is because we can mobilize others to work with us,” Obama said.

American values

Finally, the last lesson the president had for the new officers was to remember that threats to American security cannot be solved by military force alone. “We’ve got to draw on every tool, all elements of our national power,” he said. “When we invest in the development that promotes education and opportunity around the globe, it can make conflicts and military interventions less likely later.

“So, if you want to support our military,” he continued, “you also have to be in favor of foreign assistance that helps some young person learn in a very poor country, because it may end up making it less necessary to send our sons and daughters somewhere to fight. You can’t separate the two.”

American values provide the most important weapon in the U.S. arsenal, Obama said.

“That is how we won the Cold War -- not just with the strength of our arms, (but) with the power of our ideas, the power of our example,” he said. “It is how we defend our nation … because America does not just insist that other countries respect human rights, we have to uphold them as well and lead the way.”

The president said it is really impossible to know what the future may bring.

“In the not-too-distant future, when I'm no longer president, I will sleep well at night because I know that men and women like you serve to keep us free,” Obama told the Airmen. “Take care of each other. Take care of those under your command. And, as long as you keep strong that long blue line, stay true to the values that you’ve learned here: integrity, service before self, excellence.”