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Obama speech to Air Force Academy grads: Judgment, facts are crucial elements of leadership

June 2, 2016 Updated: June 2, 2016 at 9:12 pm
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photo - The Air Force Academy Class of 2016 Graduation at Falcon Stadium on Thursday, June 2, 2016. Photo by Ryan Jones, The Gazette.
The Air Force Academy Class of 2016 Graduation at Falcon Stadium on Thursday, June 2, 2016. Photo by Ryan Jones, The Gazette. 

President Barack Obama cautioned against the lure of isolationism in a growing world of conflict and ideological threats, while encouraging the Air Force Academy's class of 2016 to rely on judgment and facts as they help defend the United States.

The president's 35-minute speech was met with lukewarm applause from the crowd of military families and veterans there to support the 812 cadets graduating on Thursday.

"I have served as commander in chief for nearly eight years now," Obama said. "It has been the highest honor of my life to lead the greatest military in the world."

Having led the nation on the battlefield on multiple fronts, approved the mission to capture and kill the founder of al-Qaida Osama bin Laden, and navigated the complex drawdown of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama felt qualified to impart some advice to the new second lieutenants.

"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 command those under you," he said.

That debate is raging in the race to replace Obama in 2017. GOP front-runner Donald Trump has made it clear he would be aggressive in his military policy while simultaneously advocating the U.S. put itself first.

Obama cautioned against isolationism, pulling away from conflict abroad and letting those problems fester and grow.

"As we navigate this complex world, America cannot shirk the mantle of leadership," Obama said. "We can't be isolationists. It's not possible."

He emphasized the importance of diplomacy, noting the Iran nuclear deal, not bombing Syria after the regime used chemical weapons on its citizens and global collaboration fighting the Islamic State.

"Leading wisely also means resisting the temptation to intervene militarily every time there is a problem or crisis in the world," he said. "History is littered with the ruins of empires and nations that have over-extended themselves."

But perhaps the most controversial claim Obama made during his speech is that the world is more peaceful now than it's ever been. The world's superpowers have been at peace and democracy is more widespread than ever before, he said.

The cadets are entering a world that is facing a growing nuclear threat in North Korea, strategic aggression in the South China Sea and, of course, the Islamic State in the Middle East.

"One of the most effective ways to lead and work with others is by treaties," Obama said.

The top Democrat in the nation admonished the Republican-lead Senate for refusing to ratify a single treaty, particularly as conflict in the South China Sea mounts.

"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."

Finally, Obama urged a focus on promoting education and economic and political reforms across the globe.

"Peace is better than war," he said.

Kim Corpus, of San Diego, was in the stadium Thursday to see her son graduate. She agreed with the president's urge for caution in conflict.

"He's a great commander in chief, and he has his priorities straight," Corpus said. "War is a horrible thing, and we don't go into it lightly. He has a lot of great accomplishments as a president, and he's been very diplomatic."

Charlie Peterson, from Montana, came to see his nephew graduate and said he thought speech was too focused on foreign policy.

"At times it might have been a little bit too political and wasn't focused on the cadets, but overall it was good," he said.

The largest applause came when Obama singled out cadets by name for their accomplishments or for their diversity in an evolving military that now puts women in combat, embraces Muslims and all religions and allows for open homosexuality.

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Contact Megan Schrader

719-286-0644

Twitter: @CapitolSchrader

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