By Ben Geman - 05/22/10 05:01 PM EDT
President Barack Obama on Saturday used a speech to West Point cadets to defend his escalation of the war in Afghanistan.
Obama also placed a heavy emphasis on winning international cooperation and bolstering non-military sources of American power.
Obama’s remarks to the graduating class revealed both continuity with former President Bush’s hard stance against violent extremists and a break with the unilateralism that Bush critics called a defining feature of his presidency.
“America has not succeeded by stepping outside the currents of cooperation, we have succeeded by steering those currents in the direction of liberty and justice – so nations thrive by meeting their responsibilities, and face consequences when they don’t,” Obama said.
Speaking before about 1,000 cadets -- many of whom will be deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan -- Obama cited continuing threats to the U.S. by violent extremists while proclaiming that American intervention has “brought hope” to the Afghan people.
“The war began only because our own cities and civilians were attacked by violent extremists who plotted from that distant place, and it continues only because that plotting persists to this day,” Obama said in prepared remarks at the military academy in upstate New York.
Obama also told the West Point cadets that the U.S. faces a suite of challenges that cannot be met solely with military power.
“We will be steadfast in strengthening those old alliances that have served us so well, including those who will serve by your side in Afghanistan and around the globe. As influence extends to more countries and capitals, we must also build new partnerships, and shape stronger international standards and institutions,” Obama said.
“This engagement is not an end in itself. The international order we seek is one that can resolve the challenges of our times – countering violent extremism and insurgency; stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and securing nuclear materials; combating a changing climate and sustaining global growth; helping countries feed themselves and care for their sick; preventing conflict and healing its wounds,” he added.
Obama used a similar theme when discussing domestic policy. He strongly – and repeatedly – praised the military while noting “now the rest of us must do our part.” He called for preparing children to compete in a global marketplace, developing energy sources that end reliance on foreign oil, and strong U.S. science and research.
“At no time in human history has a nation of diminished economic vitality maintained its military and political primacy,” Obama said.
Obama last addressed West Point in December, when he offered his explanation for sending an additional 30,000 troops to the country. The decision divided Democrats, and disappointed many of the president’s supporters on the left, who had hoped the president would wind down conflict in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Obama has said that troops from Afghanistan will begin returning home 18 months after they arrived.
“This war has changed over the last nine years, though it is no less important than it was in those days after 9/11,” Obama said Saturday in his remarks.
“We toppled the Taliban regime; now we must break the momentum of a Taliban insurgency and train Afghan Security Forces,” he continued. “We have supported the election of a sovereign government; now we must strengthen its capacity. We have brought hope to the Afghan people; now we must see that their country does not fall prey to our common enemies.”
Obama’s speech fusing a defense of the war and with pledges of a new foreign policy direction comes ahead of a Capitol Hill debate on war funding legislation.
The Senate hopes to approve a supplemental funding bill before leaving for the Memorial Day recess, with the House taking up the legislation after the Senate.
The House vote will be complicated by opposition to the war effort from liberal Democrats, who are wary of continuing the engagement in Afghanistan.
Obama also used the speech to cite continuing terrorist threats while defending the administration’s record on intelligence.
Intelligence agencies have come under GOP attack for failing to more quickly detect the plot of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the failed Christmas Day airline bomber. The criticism has put the White House on the defensive, and Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair resigned under pressure earlier this week.
“Though we have had more success in eliminating al Qaeda leaders in recent months than in recent years, they will continue to recruit, plot, and exploit our open society. We see that in bombs that go off in Kabul and Karachi,” Obama said.
“We see it in attempts to blow up an airliner over Detroit or a SUV in Times Square, even as these failed attacks show that pressure on networks like al Qaeda is forcing them to rely on terrorists with less time and space to train. We see it in al Qaeda’s gross distortion of Islam, their disrespect for human life, and their attempts to prey upon fear, and hatred, and prejudice,” he added.
This story was posted at 10:36 a.m. and updated at 1:01 p.m.