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Obama Gives Commencement at West Point; A Defense and Dicussion of U.S. Foreign Policy

Aired May 28, 2014 - 11:00   ET


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: 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 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 our educational exchange and opportunity for all people, and women and girls. That's who we are. That's what we represent.


I saw that through the 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 promises 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 ought to focus not just on rescuing those girls right away, but also on supporting Nigerian efforts to educate its youth. It 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, where 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 defined 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.


We have been through a long season of war. We have faced trials that were not foreseen. And we've seen the visions 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.


(END LIVE FEED) WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: There you see the West Point cadets. They're applauding the commander-in-chief after he delivers a major, a very lengthy foreign policy speech outlining his agenda for military use over the next several years, a middle ground, if you will, between direct intervention on the one hand and isolationism on the other, the president outlining those areas where the U.S. must intervene directly; on the other hand, saying that there is multilateral efforts are under way to avoid direct military action.

Let's just watch the president receive this award, this medallion, from West Point.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... the service of the nation, we are all bonded, our dedication to selfless service and loyalty to our country.

We hope that this ring serves as reminder of our class' commitment to our brothers and sisters in arms and our oath to the nation.



BLITZER: Christiane Amanpour was watching and listening very carefully. Christiane, what did you think?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this was billed as a speech by his administration to face down the critics who have said that this American foreign policy has been too weak to get people like Assad, or Putin. or name any one of the leaders and adversaries around there to listen to America's leadership.

This, though, was not a muscular speech, a robust speech that would assuage those critics, nor was it a muscular speech commensurate with America's superpower throw-weight, and nor a speech was it a speech, I don't believe, that many of those foreign leaders who I've spoken to will see as saying anything very different than has already been undertaken.

He talked about Ukraine, and he's right about Ukraine. America did lead the isolation of President Putin and Russia, but also, business leaders decided that the way things were going for Russia was not a place for them to invest and that affected Russia's economy. So that's right.

But when it came to throwing NATO's power around, not military intervention at all, but showing NATO's strength in NATO nations, the president chose the lowest option, 150 American service people going to Poland. That is not something that is robust or commensurate with a superpower.

He talks about Iran, and he's absolutely right. If Iran and the United States can come to an agreement on the nuclear situation, that would be a major game changer, a major shift in regional politics and could very well see a much calmer regional situation. He unfortunately, though, and many critics will say this, equates not using force in Iran with not using force in other such places, where the two are very, very different.

Most people who believe in America's military intervention will say that there was no way you could use force in Iran and come out a winner.

However, most people who believe in America's humanitarian and military intervention say that that's not the case with Syria. Nobody expected the straw man to be fulfilled, in other words, this idea that American boots would be on the ground.

But this speech gave absolutely no new information as to how President Obama will seek to bolster the moderate opposition in Syria. We were expecting some specifics. We didn't get it.

He repeated that he was going to help bolster the nations around. And let's face it. Those are America's chief allies in that vital, vital region which are practically collapsing under the weight of Syrian refugees.

He spoke about al Qaeda having been defeated. It is true they're on the back foot in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, and they're under threat but not defeated in the Arabian Peninsula.

But the Syria conflict has allowed these al Qaeda-type groups to reconstitute to the point that American national security officials have said that they now potentially constitute a direct threat to the United States.

The British leaders, the French leaders, European leaders say the same thing, that those who are going there could bring this back, plus the backlash could constitute a direct threat to the United States.

Just today as the president was speaking, more Assad barrel bombs were dropped on people, scores more people were killed and there are now 150,000 deaths there. And this is not just a moral and humanitarian obligation, it's also, according to even former Obama administration officials, a major strategic calculation and benefit that would come from supporting the moderate opposition and denying President Assad.

So here we are three years later after President Obama himself said Assad must go, and instead of that, Assad is gaining the military offensive, and he seeks to have himself reelected as president in perpetuity, sometime later this month or next month.

So it was very mixed, but the Iraq hangover is a very, very painful hangover, and this president is the "ending wars" president. And he showed us in the speech today, and he also showed, as I said, this pendulum.

The intervention of the Bush years was so intense that people have reacted so viscerally and have gone the other way, and even that now is causing a problem, because when you go all of the way the other way, and you don't lead in places like Syria, it's a major problem for the United States and for the rest of the region.

BLITZER: Christiane, I want you to stand by. Jim Sciutto is standing by. All of our correspondents here in the United States and around the world, they are all standing by.

We'll take a quick break, much more analysis of what we heard from the president of the United States when we come back.



OBAMA: 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.


BLITZER: The president is now as you can see handing out diplomas to the cadets, the graduating class of 2014 at the West point Military Academy. We're continuing our analysis of what we just heard in the president's major national security address before these cadets.

Jim Sciutto is joining us, our chief national security correspondent. We heard a very robust defense of the presidents strategy as far as Ukraine is concerned, Syria is concerned, Iran is concerned, a strong defense of his battle against terrorists including the use of drones, although he said more transparency is necessary. It was in many respects -- I think we expected it - a sort of middle ground that he outlined between isolationism and unilateral interventionism.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEFNATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: I think you're right Wolf. I think if some were expecting a home run speech or a home run mission statement as an antidote to that now infamous comment about hitting singles and doubles in U.S. foreign policy the president made on his Asia trip just a couple weeks ago, people would be disappointed. This sounded more like a brief defending an existing policy, and bottom line of that existing policy, the principle that war in the president's view is rarely the answer. He quotes Eisenhower, saying war is mankind's most tragic and stupid folly. He said these cadets graduating as soldiers and officers, that I would be betraying my duty to you if I sent you into harm's way whenever I saw a problem that needs fixing. That seems to be at the basis of his defense of this policy and when he goes from there, it really comes across as small ball in effect at least what was new in this speech.

He talks about this counter-terrorism partnership fund. $5 billion to help and train counter-terror forces in countries around the world, particularly countries that can't handle it on their own, but also in terms of aid to the Syrian rebels. As Christiane noted, no new announcement there. His only comment was that he is going to continue to work with Congress to increase that support and then he goes on to cites Ukraine, Iran, even dealing with China and it's territorial disputes in the south and east China seas as evidence, in his view, that this American policy working with partners, this small ball policy in effect is working.

But I think critics would argue it's too early to say the policy is working in Ukraine or Iran and that in some ways it shows the limits of the strategy, in Ukraine for instance. Yes, the president was able to bring partners together in Europe for some sanctions against Russia, but not all sanctions that, for instance, the Ukrainians are hoping for. In Iran, still a long way to go to a nuclear deal there. And the U.S. still developing a strategy for pushing back against China's own territorial claims in the south and east China sea. Too early to claim those as successes. But the president claimed Ukraine, Iran, China, as examples of where this small ball, or singles and doubles policy, is in effect working.

I think that if you were to poll the folks, for instance, I was speaking to in Ukraine in the last several days, Syrians suffering through four years of civil war, southeast Asians who are concerned about China's rise. If you were to poll them to see how much confidence, comfort they took from this statement, I think you would get some hard questions there. Sounds like a defense of existing policy and not a home run. More of those singles and doubles but one the president appears comfortable with. He makes a strong case for, saying we tried in effect the other policy and that led us into two long wars which he is now ending.

BLITZER: Excellent points all around. I want to bring Michelle Kosinski into this conversation, our White House correspondent. He really didn't get into, as Jim just pointed out Michelle, he didn't reality get into the specifics of what the U.S. would do to arm or train those moderate Syrian opposition rebels, if you will. He did say he would consult with Congress. I sort of was expecting more, but what are officials at the White House saying?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I think we all were. That was going to be the news that came out of this. The president really covered Afghanistan and what the future of U.S. involvement there would look like. Yesterday kind of got that out of the way. So Syria was going to be the really big headline today. I think what we got was this partnership fund with other nations that needs to be approved by Congress and we'll look for supporting the moderate opposition on the ground more. Even if that does substantially change the situation down the road, I think the way it comes across here falls a little flat especially with some of the buildup we've seen leading into it.

I think defensive is kind of the word there. I think some of what has tainted or dampened the stance that the administration has taken even in the briefing room day-to-day is that they have been pushed into a defensive stance. This was a sweeping speech that kind of covered everything and as well was a chance for the president to list what seemed like every accomplishment of his administration, but it kind of read like a defensive lawyerly answer to the critics. We kind of thought that's what the president didn't want to do. But he did go there. Even mentioning some of the critiques that he's faced. He also had some key phrases like, tough talk generates headlines but war rarely conforms to that kind of mode, and also we may have the best hammer but every single one of our problems is not a nail. Wolf? BLITZER: Michelle, stand by. I want to bring in two guests that we have in our studio. Mark Jacobson, is an adjunct professor at George Washington University, a combat veteran in Afghanistan and also joining us now, Nile Gardiner is director of the heritage foundation Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom.

You served in Afghanistan. You know what the president announced yesterday about a drawdown of troops to under 10,000 next year, about 5,000 the year after that. By the time of a complete U.S. withdraw, is it for sure that Afghanistan is going to be a robust ally/friend of the United States?

MARK JACOBSON, PROFESSOR AT GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: I think if you take a look at where we have come over the last several years particularly with president Obama announcing in December 2009, at West Point no less, this surge, we've seen success in terms of the ability of getting the Afghans to a position where they can take control of their own destiny. There's been a successful election. We're looking toward a successful runoff election, a smooth transition of civilian power. When you look at the end of 2017, you are looking at the point where there could be a normalization in those military relationships. Those partnerships the president spoke about.

BLITZER: That's the best case scenario. Others fear, like John McCain among others, that by setting a time line, a date certain for a complete U.S. withdraw, you are telling the Taliban and al Qaeda just be patient. Wait. The U.S. will be out soon. And then they can regroup.

NILE GARDINER, DIRECTOR OF THE MARGARET THATCHER CENTER FOR FREEDOM: I agree. It sends completely the wrong signal to America's enemy. And today in his West Point speech, president Obama did not outline any coherent long-term strategy in terms of dealing with Afghanistan, preventing it from becoming a safe haven once again for al Qaeda. And so I think over the past two days, the president has sent any extraordinarily weak kneed signal to enemies on the world stage. And there's a good chance that the United States and other allies may be forced to return to Afghanistan a few years from now.

BLITZER: Let me go to Nick Paton Walsh, he is our correspondent, he happens to be in Ukraine right now covering what's going on. He spent a lot of time in Afghanistan. Nick, I'm anxious to get your thoughts on what we heard from the president of the United States.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is always as we've seen before the philosopher in chief and not commander in chief. You heard him make the argument saying we need to go somewhere in the middle. His bottom line, clearly, that America's interests will always be protected and the -- he used bottom line and not infamous red line that he drew with Syria, had to dance around later on. We knew that was the case. Essential interests would be protected.

Key to this, what was the new spending we heard? It's supposed to be a recast of the whole foreign policy for the remainder of the Obama administration. The one new bit of spending, actual effective policy here, apart from the ramp up of Syria, we have heard that many times before, was this $5 billion counter-terrorism fund. No bear in mind that in Afghanistan, we spent more than that every month. Even now with a lesser troop presence. So we are not seeing here much meat on the bone. A very, very lengthy speech. I have got here, written in my notes the word Burma. The fact that Barack Obama brought up reform that's been happening in Burma over the past few months just shows really how much he wanted to cram in to try to defend his record. Wolf?

BLITZER: Nick Paton Walsh, everyone, stand by. We'll continue our special coverage. I want to make sure that everyone knows we're going to have, obviously, a lot more coming up throughout the day here on CNN.

"@ THIS HOUR" with Burman and Michaela, by the way, will start after a quick break.