November 20, 2019
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President Obama Addresses the 2016 U.S. Air Force Academy Graduates

The President:
Hello, Air Force! (applause) Thank you so much. Thank you. It is wonderful to be back
at the United States Air Force Academy! (applause) Thank you, Secretary James, for your
service to our Air Force and to our nation. Governor Hickenlooper,
Academy leaders, faculty and staff — especially your
outstanding Superintendent, Lieutenant General
Michelle Johnson. (applause) And most of all,
congratulations to the Class of 2016! (applause) As he prepares to conclude a
remarkable 40-year career in the Air Force — a career
that started on this day 40 years ago — please join me
in saluting someone who many of you look up to and whose
counsel I’ve relied on as well — Chief of Staff
General Mark Welsh. Thank you, Mark. (applause) Thank you, Mark, and
thank you, Betty. And although he’s not here
today, I am proud to have nominated another
Academy graduate — and a combat-tested pilot — to
serve as the 21st Air Force Chief of Staff,
General David Goldfein. (applause) Cadets, you can take
enormous pride in all the hard work that has
brought you to this day. I also ask you to give a
big round of applause to all your moms and dads,
grandparents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles who
supported you and sacrificed for you so you
could be here today. Give them another
round of applause. (applause) Now, I have to tell you,
some days I spend more time with the Air Force
than my own family. (laughter) Especially on Air Force One. (applause) You take good care of me. You are always on time. You never lose my luggage. (laughter) I don’t have to take off
my shoes before I get on. (laughter) So I’m really going to
miss Air Force One — (laughter) — as well as the incredible
Airmen that I’ve come to know. And that includes the
pilots who flew me here — Lieutenant Colonels Dan
Thorn and Rob Tobler and Major Brett Ellis — all
three of them proud Air Force Academy graduates. Give them a big
round of applause. (applause) This Academy is one of our
nation’s most selective academic institutions. Just being accepted is a big
deal — a testament to your talent and your leadership. And we are particularly
grateful to those of you with prior enlisted service,
including Cameron Kistler, who deployed to Iraq, — (applause) — Robert Parati and Clayton
Logan, who deployed to Afghanistan. (applause) We thank you. Your country thanks you. Cadets, here you were
tested by fire — literally. When you went through Beast,
as General Johnson noted, Waldo Canyon was
actually on fire. During Recognition, you ran
to the Rock in a blizzard. So you have more than earned
your unofficial motto — “forged in fire and
tempered in ice.” (applause) Which is a great motto —
although it does sound like something out of
Game of Thrones. (laughter) And through it all,
you’ve become like family. You survived morning
accountability formations, survived living
in Sijan Hall. (applause) That night in F-1 where you
learned to “earn each day.” (applause) You cheered Coach Calhoun
and the Falcons as I’ve welcomed them to the
White House to present the Commander-in-Chief Trophy — (applause) — which Air Force has
won a record 19 times. (applause) And I look out into your
ranks and I see Airmen who will excel as pilots and
engineers, analysts — so many specialties. The first cyber graduates
in this Academy’s history. (applause) And David Higgins, a
marksman who’s going to the Olympics in Rio — bring
home the gold, David! (applause) No pressure. (laughter) In you, I see men and women
of integrity and service and excellence. And you’ve made
us all proud. And perhaps no one would
have been more proud of your success than Major David
Brodeur, whose sacrifice in Afghanistan we honor, and
whose family joins us today — 2016. (applause) You’ve learned other
lessons, as well, like what happens when you paint one
of the planes on the Terrazo in your class color. (applause) With such “achievements”
in mind — I hereby grant amnesty to all cadets
serving restrictions and confinements for
minor offenses. Only minor. (laughter) Today, we congratulate our
newest Air Force officers. On behalf of the American
people, I thank you for choosing a life of service. In the coming weeks, some of
you will head to the chapel to get married. In the years ahead, you and
your families will serve around the world. As officers, you’ll be
responsible for the lives of those under your command,
and you’ll be called upon to lead with wisdom,
courage and compassion. That’s what I want to
talk with you about today. I’ve served as
Commander-in-Chief for nearly eight years now. It has been the highest
honor of my life to lead the greatest military in the
history of the world. It inspires me every day. (applause) Today will be the last time
that I have the honor of addressing a graduating
class of military officers. And there’s a debate going
on in our country about our nation’s role in the world. So, with that in mind, I
hope you don’t mind if I share some lessons
I’ve learned as Commander-in-Chief —
lessons that you may find useful as you lead those
under your command, and as we work together to keep our
nation strong and secure. First, as you look at the
world, be guided by an honest and clear-eyed
assessment. Remember what you learned
at this Academy — the importance of evidence
and facts and judgment. And here’s a fact: The
United States of America remains the most powerful
nation on Earth and a force for good. (applause) We have big challenges
in our country — in our politics, our
economy, our society. Those are challenges
we have to address. But look around. We have the world’s
strongest economy. Our scientists, our
researchers, our entrepreneurs are global
leaders in innovation. Our colleges and
universities attract the best talent from
around the world. Our values — freedom,
equality, opportunity — those values inspire people
everywhere, including immigrants who come here,
ready to work, and integrate and help renew our country. Our standing in the
world is higher. I see it in my travels from
Havana to Berlin to Ho Chi Minh City — where huge
crowds of Vietnamese lined the streets, some
waving American flags. So make no mistake, the
United States is better positioned to lead in the
21st century than any other nation. And here’s another fact: Our
military is, by a mile, the strongest in the world. (applause) Yes, after two major ground
wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, we’re drawing down the
size of our armed forces, which is natural
and necessary. And we have to keep
improving readiness and modernizing our force. But it is undeniable — our
military is the most capable fighting force
on the planet. It’s not close. Our soldiers are the
best-trained, best-equipped land force on Earth, tested
by years of combat, able to sustain power
anywhere in the globe. Nobody can match our Army. Our sailors serve on
aircraft carriers that can go almost anywhere, and
submarines that move undetected — the largest
and most lethal Navy in the world, on track to
surpass 300 ships. Nobody can match our Navy. Our Marines are ready at a
moment’s notice, “first to fight” or deliver help in
a crisis, the world’s only truly global
expeditionary force. Nobody can match
our Marines. Our Coast Guardsmen serve on
the most advanced cutters in history, and special
teams can shoot smugglers’ engines, hook and climb or
repel aboard, protecting our shores. Nobody can match
our Coast Guard. And as for our Airmen — (applause) — 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. (applause) Not only that, no other
nation brings its forces together like we do in one
joint force, as we saw in an operation against ISIL
in Syria just last year. Air Force aircraft
provided surveillance. Navy F-18s provided
close air support. Army aviation assets
delivered our Special Operators, an assault force
of Marines and soldiers, to the target, and one of
ISIL’s top leaders, Abu Sayyaf, was eliminated. That’s the power of
America’s military. And we need to
keep it that way. And here’s one more fact as
you go out into the world: We are blessed to be living
in the most peaceful, most prosperous era
in human history. Now, that sounds
controversial until you survey the history
of the world. It’s hard to see, with all
the violence and suffering in the world, and what’s
reported on the news every day. But if you step back for a
moment — think about last week, when I was in
Hiroshima to remember all who were lost in a World War
that killed some 60 million people — not
60,000, 60 million. For decades, there have
been no wars between major powers. Wars between nations
are increasingly rare. More people live
in democracies. More than 1 billion people
have been lifted from extreme poverty. From the Americas to Africa
to Southeast Asia, there’s 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’s the progress and the
hope that we have to build on. And so much of that derives
from the extraordinary leadership and sacrifice of
our Air Force and the other branches of our military. So we are well-positioned. You enter this moment with
a lot of good cards to play. But we face serious threats. Terrorist networks slaughter
the innocent and plot attacks against our nation. Civil wars like in Iraq tear
countries apart and create humanitarian catastrophes
and havens for terrorists. Russian aggression against
Ukraine, disputes in the South China Sea — these
are testing an international order that we built, where
the sovereignty of nations is respected and all nations
abide by the same rules. Nuclear weapons, as in North
Korea, and the specter of nuclear terrorism
still threaten us all. So how to meet these threats
while also seizing the incredible opportunities
of this moment in history, that’s going to be your
challenge — the challenge of your generation. Which leads me to
a second lesson. As we navigate this complex
world, America cannot shirk the mantle of leadership. We can’t be isolationist. It’s not possible in this
globalized, interconnected world. In these uncertain times,
it’s tempting sometimes to pull back and try to wash
our hands of conflicts that seem intractable, let
other countries fend for themselves. But history teaches us, from
Pearl Harbor to 9/11, that oceans alone
cannot protect us. Hateful ideologies can spark
terror from Boston to San Bernardino. In a global economy, it’s
not possible to stop trading goods and services
with other countries. Weak public health systems
on the other side of the world allow diseases to
develop that end up reaching our shores. So we cannot turn inward. We cannot give in
to isolationism. That’s a false comfort. Allowing problems to fester
over there makes us less secure here. So, as Americans, we have
to keep leading and working with others to build the
security and prosperity and justice we want
in the world. By the way, one of the most
effective ways to lead and work with others is through
treaties that advance our interests. Lately, there’s 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. They voted down a treaty to
protect disabled Americans, including our veterans,
while Senator and World War II veteran Bob Dole was
sitting right there in the Senate chambers
in a wheelchair. We don’t always realize it,
but treaties help make a lot of things in our lives
possible that we take for granted — from
international phone calls to mail. Those are good things. Those are not a threat
to our sovereignty. I think we can
all agree on that. But also from NATO to
treaties controlling nuclear weapons, treaties
help keep us safe. 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. And by the way, these
treaties are not a new thing. The power to make treaties
is written into our Constitution. Our Founding Fathers
ratified lots of treaties. So it’s time for the Senate
to do its job and help us advance American leadership,
rather than undermine it. (applause) A part of the reason this is
so important is because the United States remains the
one indisputable nation in world affairs. I say this all the time. After eight years, I have
not gone to an international conference, summit, meeting
where we were not the ones who made the agenda possible
— even if we weren’t hosting it. We have more alliances with
other countries than anybody else — and they’re the
foundation of global stability and prosperity. On just about every issue,
the world looks to us to set the agenda. When there’s a problem
around the world, they do not call Beijing or
Moscow — they call us. And we lead not by dictating
to other nations, but by working with them as
partners; by treating other countries and their peoples
with respect, not by lecturing them. This isn’t just the right
thing to do; it’s in our self-interest. It makes countries more
likely to work with us, and, ultimately, it makes
us more secure. So we need smart, steady,
principled American leadership. And part of leading wisely
is seeing threats clearly. Remember Ebola? That was a serious threat,
and we took it seriously. But in the midst of
it, there was hysteria. “Flights must be banned!” “Quarantine citizens!” These were actual quotes. “Seal the border!” And my favorite — “Remove
Obama…or millions of Americans die!” (laughter) That’s an actual quote. (laughter) The thing is, when we
panic, we don’t make good decisions. 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. (applause) So we’ve got to
engage with the world. We can’t pull back. Of course, leading wisely
also means resisting the temptation to intervene
militarily every time there’s a problem or
crisis in the world. History is littered with the
ruins of empires and nations that overextended
themselves, draining their power and influence. And so we have to
chart a smarter path. As we saw in Vietnam and
the Iraq War, oftentimes the greatest damage to American
credibility comes when we overreach, when we
don’t think through the consequences of
all of our actions. And so we have to
learn from our history. And that also means we’re
doing right by our men and women in uniform. So, cadets, in your
positions of leadership, you will be called upon to
sustain this balance — to be hard-headed and
big-hearted; guided by realism and idealism,
even when these forces are sometimes at odds. We’ve 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;
that there may be wars we cannot always stop right
away, or lives we cannot save. But we also need the
idealism that sees the world as it ought to be — a
commitment to the universal values of democracy and
equality and human rights, and a willingness to stand
up for them around the world — not just when it’s
easy, but when it’s hard. Because that’s who we
are and that’s American leadership. At times, ensuring our
security requires the use of military force. That’s the third lesson
I want to discuss. As Commander-in-Chief, I
have not hesitated to use force, unilaterally where
necessary, to protect the American people. Thanks to our military,
intelligence and counterterrorism
professionals, bin Laden is gone. (applause) Anwar al-Awlaki, a leader
of the al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, is gone. (applause) Ahmed Abdi Godane, the al
Qaeda leader in Somalia — he’s gone. (applause) Ahmed Abu Khattala, accused
in the attacks in Benghazi — captured. Mohammad Mansur, the leader
of the Taliban — gone. (applause) Leader after leader in ISIL
— Haji Mutazz, their number two; Mohamed Emwazi, who
brutally murdered Americans; Abu Nabil, the ISIL leader
in Libya — all gone. Abu Dawud, a leader of their
chemical weapons program — captured. The list goes on. Because if you target
Americans, we will find you and justice will be done,
and we will defend our nation. (applause) But even as we celebrate the
courage of our troops who serve in war, even where we
do not hesitate to act on behalf of our security, we
should never celebrate war itself. War, no matter how noble our
intentions may be, promises agony and tragedy. And no one knows this more
than those who fight those wars — our wounded warriors
who bear the scars, seen and unseen; our veterans,
who remember their fallen comrades; our Gold Star
families, whose hearts ache with pride and with loss. We have a solemn
responsibility to these Americans who
sacrifice in our name. We have a responsibility to
be guided by intelligence, and not ideology, and to
never rush into war, and to explore other options first. Because sending our troops
into harm’s way must always be a last resort. (applause) And sometimes those
decisions are tough. I know, for example, that
my decision not to conduct strikes against Syria after
it used chemical weapons was controversial among
some in Washington. But because we seized a
diplomatic option, backed by our threat of force,
nations came together and we accomplished far more than
military strikes ever could have — all of Syria’s
declared chemical weapons were successfully removed. (applause) And in acting militarily,
we have a responsibility, whenever possible, to build
coalitions and partnerships. There are times where
we have to do it alone. But on a whole lot of global
problems, the United States shouldn’t bear the entire
burden of global security by itself. Others have to step up. That’s why, as we assist and
train Afghan forces, we’re part of a 39-nation
coalition. Our coalition against
ISIL includes 66 partners, including Arab nations. We’ve learned that often
the best way to defeat terrorists is not by sending
large numbers of American ground forces to occupy and
patrol foreign cities and towns. It’s better to train and
build up local partners — they’re the ones who have
to stabilize their own countries over
the long term. (applause) Compared to when I came into
office — when we had nearly 180,000 American troops
in Afghanistan and Iraq — today that number
is less than 15,000. Most of our troops
have come home. (applause) Our local partners on the
ground are in the lead. (applause) And as ISIL continues to
lose territory in Iraq and Syria, 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. But 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. (applause) When we use force, we have
a responsibility to use it proportionally. Unlike terrorists who try
to kill as many people as possible, the United
States military goes to extraordinary lengths to
avoid civilian casualties. It’s the tragedy of war,
however, whenever — whether it’s conventional warfare
or precision strikes — that innocents sometimes are
caught in the crossfire. And these are deaths
that haunt us all. Nobody more than me. As technology evolves, we
can never grow numb to the consequences of our actions. We have to hold ourselves to
high standards, be even more transparent, and do
everything in our power to prevent the loss
of innocent life. That’s how America
goes to war. And that’s how, ultimately,
America also wins the peace. (applause) And we have a responsibility
to always give our troops a clear mission, the support
they need to get the job done, and a plan for
what comes after. I insisted, for example,
that our surge of forces in Afghanistan be matched
with a transition to ensure Afghans took responsibility
for their own security. In Libya, we were right to
launch an air campaign to prevent Qaddafi from
massacring innocent civilians, but we didn’t do
enough to plan for the day after, when deep-rooted
tribalism plunged Libya into disorder. In Syria, the suffering
in the civil war has been heartbreaking to see a
nation shattered, and hundreds of thousands killed
and millions driven from their homes. It is gut-wrenching. And as a father, I look at
Syria’s children and I see my own. That’s why we’ve said the
dictator, Assad, must go and why we support a moderate
Syrian opposition. And it’s why America
provides more humanitarian aid to the Syrian people
than any other nation. But suggestions
for deeper U.S. military involvement in a
conflict like the Syrian civil war have to be fully
thought through, rigorously examined with an honest
assessment of the risks and tradeoffs. How will it alter
the conflict? What comes next? When we ask those questions,
we prevent the kind of mission creep that history
teaches us to avoid. If Iran and Russia want
to spill their blood and treasure trying to prop up
their Syrian client and get sucked into a quagmire,
that is their choice. As President of the
United States, I’ve made a different choice. And the only real solution
to the Syrian conflict is a political solution,
including a transition away from Assad. And that takes diplomacy —
not American soldiers being dragged into the middle of
another civil war in the Middle East. Our foreign policy has to be
strong, but it also has to be smart. (applause) Which brings me to my last
lesson that I want to share: As powerful as our military
is, we have to remember that many of the threats to our
security cannot be solved by military force alone. We’ve got to draw on every
tool, all elements of our national power. 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, 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. (applause) When we encourage economic
and political reforms — when citizens, especially
young people, in other countries have jobs and can
choose their own leaders and have their human rights and
dignity upheld — that can help reduce the appeal
of violent extremism. We now have hope of averting
the worst effects of climate change and the instability
that would threaten our national security because
American leadership helped rally the world and forge
the most ambitious agreement in history to fight
climate change. (applause) So if we’re going to seize
the possibilities of our time, we have to use all
these tools, and we have to have the courage
to chart new paths. Because we negotiated with
Iran and enforced strong sanctions, we reached a
deal that prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb —
and we did it without firing a shot. With diplomacy, not war. (applause) We put aside 50 years of
failed policies, and now we’re seeing Americans
returning to Cuba and the Cuban people looking to us,
and having new hope for the future. (applause) Four decades after the
conflict between us, Vietnam and America are forging a
new partnership, showing the world that peace
is better than war. (applause) And perhaps no element of
our power is more enduring than the example that we set
ourselves — the values we live as a nation
and as individuals. That’s 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. It’s how we defend our
nation — including our refusal to torture —
because America doesn’t just insist that other countries
respect human rights, we have to uphold them, as
well, and lead the way. (applause) It’s how we treat
those we capture. It’s one of the reasons we
have to close the prison at Guantanamo — because
America has to stand for rule of law. We live our values when
our military, like America itself, truly welcomes
the talents of all people. We’re stronger when our
gay and lesbian cadets and troops can serve their
country — a country they love — without
hiding who they love. (applause) We’re stronger when cadets
— like Wasim Soomro and Ismail Baumy and James Salem
— know that we celebrate their service as proud,
patriotic Muslim Americans who are also serving
in our armed forces. (applause) And on this 40th anniversary
of the first female cadets arriving at this Academy, we
are stronger because General Johnson leads this
institution; because Air Force General Lori Robinson
leads Northern Command — our nation’s first female
combatant commander; and because all combat positions
in our military are now open to women like you. We’re stronger
because of it. (applause) So there you have it —
a few thoughts from your Commander-in-Chief on how to
keep our military strong and our nation secure. We can never know
what the future holds. But in the not-so-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. (applause) 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
you’ve learned here — integrity, service before
self, excellence — do this and I’m confident that
we will always remain one nation, under God,
indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. Congratulations,
Class of 2016. God bless you all. God bless the United
States of America. (applause)

Tony wyaad