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President Obama gave the commencement address at West Point on Wednesday morning, laying out his vision for America's role in the world after six years as Commander in Chief of the U.S. military.
See the 12 most impactful quotes from Obama's address:
This is the first class to graduate since 9/11 who may not be sent into combat in Iraq or Afghanistan
"It is a particularly useful time for America to reflect on those who have sacrificed so much for our freedom – for you are the first class to graduate since 9/11 who may not be sent into combat in Iraq or Afghanistan," the president said. He last spoke at West Point in 2009, when we had more than 100,000 troops in Iraq and preparing a surge in Afghanistan. Now, the troops are out of Iraq, the war in Afghanistan is winding down, "Al Qaeda’s leadership in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been decimated, and Osama bin Laden is no more," the president said.
Why some conflicts just aren't America's problems to solve
"Conflicts in Syria or Ukraine or the Central African Republic are not ours to solve. Not surprisingly, after costly wars and continuing challenges at home, that view is shared by many Americans," Obama said. "It is absolutely true that in the 21st century, American isolationism is not an option," he later said, citing the threat of unsecured nuclear materials, extremists from Syria's civil war and unchecked "regional aggression" in southern Ukraine or the South China Sea.
"Beyond these narrow rationales, I believe we have a real stake – an abiding self-interest – in making sure our children grow up in a world where school-girls are not kidnapped; where individuals aren’t slaughtered because of tribe or faith or political beliefs," he said. "I believe that a world of greater freedom and tolerance is not only a moral imperative – it also helps 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," the president said before the crowd of cadets, before quoting General Eisenhower 1947 commencement address: "War is mankind’s most tragic and stupid folly; to seek or advise its deliberate provocation is a black crime against all men.”
President Obama then told the cadets that he was haunted by the deaths of those who came before them.
"I would betray my duty to you, and to the country we love, if I sent you into harm’s way simply because I saw a problem somewhere in the world that needed fixing, or because I was worried about critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak," he said, before laying it all out.
"Here’s my bottom line," President Obama said. "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."
"My vision for how the United States of America, and our military, should lead in the years to come."
"The United States will use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when our core interests demand it – when our people are threatened; when our livelihood is at stake; or when the security of our allies is in danger," the president said, repeating a principle he first put forward at the outset of his presidency. In these circumstances, the president said, "We still need to ask tough questions about whether our action is proportional, effective and just. International opinion matters. America should never ask permission to protect our people, our homeland, or our way of life."
When America should not go it alone
"When issues of global concern that do not pose a direct threat to the United States are at stake – when crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction – then the threshold for military action must be higher," Obama said.
"In such circumstances, we should not go it alone."
"Instead," the president said, "we must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action. We must broaden our tools to include diplomacy and development; sanctions and isolation; appeals to international law and – if just, necessary, and effective – multilateral military action. We must do so because collective action in these circumstances is more likely to succeed, more likely to be sustained, and less likely to lead to costly mistakes."
Terrorism is still America's biggest threat
"For the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America at home and abroad remains terrorism," the president said. "But a strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naïve and unsustainable. I believe we must shift our counter-terrorism 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."
He spoke of today’s principal threat coming not from a centralized al Qaeda leadership, but decentralized al Qaeda affiliates and extremists. This means America needs a strategy that matches this diffuse threat, the president said, "one that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military thin, or stir up local resentments."
When to take direct action
The diplomacy and partnerships Obama spoke of in fighting terrorism do not eliminate the need to take direct action when necessary to protect America, he said.
"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 have carried out in Yemen and Somalia," he said. "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 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."
The president calls for transparency
President Obama said America needs to be more transparent "about both the basis for our actions, and the manner in which they are carried out – whether it is drone strikes, or training partners," saying he'll turn tot he military to take the lead and provide information to the public about America's efforts.
"When we cannot explain our efforts clearly and publicly," the president said, "we face terrorist propaganda and international suspicion; we erode legitimacy with our partners and our people; and we reduce accountability in our own government."
On the effectiveness of multilateral action
"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. Though imperfect, these institutions have been a force multiplier – reducing the need for unilateral American action, and increased restraint among other nations," he said. He added that skeptics who downplay the effectiveness of multilateral action are wrong, offering Ukraine as a recent example.
Because of American leadership, the world immediately condemned Russian actions. Europe and the G-7 joined with 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. This mobilization of world opinion and institutions served as a counterweight to Russian propaganda, Russian troops on the border, and armed militias. 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 be grave challenges. But standing with our allies on behalf of international order has given a chance for the Ukrainian people to choose their future.
"This is American leadership," the president said. "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 them from spreading."
The strength of leading by example
"American influence is always stronger when we lead by example," the president said. "We cannot exempt ourselves from the rules that apply to everyone else."
He then added: "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’s our willingness to affirm them through our actions."
"America does not simply stand for stability, or the absence of conflict, no matter what the price; we stand for the more lasting peace that can only come through opportunity and freedom for people everywhere," the president said.
How human rights are a matter of national security
"America’s support for democracy and human rights goes beyond idealism – it’s a matter of national security," Obama said. "Democracies are our closest friends, and are far less likely to go to war. Free and open economies 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."
The world as it is versus the world as it should be
"Ultimately, global leadership requires us to see the world as it is, with all its danger and uncertainty," Obama said. "But American leadership also requires us to see the world as it should be – a place where the aspirations of individual human beings matter; where hopes and not just fears govern; where the truths written into our founding documents can steer the currents of history in the direction of justice. And we cannot do that without you."
The graduating cadets mission
"Leaving here," President Obama said to the graduating class, "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."
Tags: Barack Obama