President Obama Speaks to West Point Graduates

The President: Thank you General
Caslen, for that introduction. To General Trainor,
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. (laughter and applause) Let me just say that nobody ever
did that for me when I was in school. (laughter) 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. (applause) This is a particularly
useful time for America to reflect on those who have
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. (applause) 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. (applause) And through it
all, we’ve 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. (applause) So the United
States is and remains the one indispensable nation. That has been true for the
century passed and it will 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 individuals, raising the
capacity of terrorists to do harm. Russia’s aggression toward
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 wellbeing. 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 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
cities. 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,
an abiding self-interest, in making sure our children
and our grandchildren grow up in a world where
schoolgirls 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 to 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 sacrifices 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. (applause) 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 arise 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 naïve 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 Qaeda leadership. Instead, it comes from
decentralized al Qaeda 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 alongside 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 Qaeda 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. (applause) 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 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 Counterterrorism 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 Qaeda; 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, no military solution that
can eliminate the terrible suffering anytime 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 and allies 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’ve
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 — 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
counterterrorism 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 training 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
Russian actions; Europe and the G7 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. But 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, but also beyond Europe’s borders where our NATO
allies must 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 that 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
peacekeeping 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. (applause) 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 our United States Senate,
despite the 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. (applause) 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. (applause) That’s why
we’re putting in place new restrictions on how
America collects and uses intelligence — because
we will have fewer partners and be less effective if a
perception takes hold that we’re conducting
surveillance against ordinary citizens. (applause) 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 has 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 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 with
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 of 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
educational exchange and opportunity for all
people, and women and girls. That’s who we are. That’s what we represent. (applause) I saw that through a 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 promise 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 have to
focus not just on rescuing those girls right
away, but also on supporting Nigerian efforts to
educate its youth. This 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, for 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 define
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. (applause) We have been through
a long season of war. We have faced trials that
were not foreseen, and we’ve seen divisions 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. (applause)

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