WEST POINT (PIX11) — President Barack Obama made a major foreign policy address Wednesday morning meant to be heard worldwide. But he delivered it at West Point, in the New York-New Jersey metro area, and his speech of international significance also resonated on a far more local level.
“The question is not whether America will lead,” the president said before the group of 1,067 graduating U.S. Military Academy cadets, “but how we will lead.”
The address, which spelled out U.S. foreign policy for the next two and-a-half years of the Obama presidency, also struck a chord close to home for many families in attendance.
“The one thing when he said, ‘This is the one class that won’t be sent to Afghanistan,'” said Shannon Tucker, the mother of a graduating West Point cadet from Morganville, New Jersey, “Just to hear him say that, it’s like my prayers were answered.”
To be precise, President Obama said, “You are the first class to graduate since 9/11 who may not be sent into combat in Iraq or Afghanistan,” to which there was a strong round of applause from the 10,000 or so family members in attendance.
The statement did not guarantee avoidance of deployment in the two war zones in which U.S. troops have most recently been stationed, but it came on the day after the president announced that he was drawing down the number of troops in Afghanistan to 9,800 beginning in 2015, and would withdraw all U.S. troops the following year.
It was an address the White House had been working on for months in order to clearly convey the message that the U.S. would not hesitate to use military might to protect our interests, “but American leadership requires us to see the world as it should be,” said President Obama.
That means, he said, the U.S. will work with partner nations, and whenever possible, not take actions alone. He also said that America must set an example for other countries.
“We can’t call on others to make commitments to combat climate change,” said the president, “if a whole lot of our political leaders deny that it’s taking place.”
He told the cadets, for whom he is commander in chief, that continued climate change “will help shape your time in uniform, as we are called on to respond to refugee flows and natural disasters, and conflicts over water and food.”
President Obama also made a related proposal. “Next year,” he said, “I intend to make sure America is out front in putting together a global framework to preserve our planet.”
He offered no details about that proposal, but he did, in declaring terrorism “the most direct threat to America, at home and abroad,” call for “Congress to support a new counterterrorism partnerships fund of up to $5 billion.”
The address also got emotional in at least one way. The president mentioned a 2011 West Point graduate who had been deployed to Afghanistan, Gavin White.
“Like the soldiers who came before him,” said the president, “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 and 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,” the president said from the podium, to thunderous applause.
It led to a standing ovation, to which a visibly humbled 1st Lt. Gavin White stood up from his seat, as the entire stadium cheered.
“I was honored,” said White, “by what he said, by the reaction of the crowd.”
His sister, Morgan, who was commissioned in the Wednesday ceremony that her brother attended, gave a more personal response. “It was very emotional,” she told PIX11 News. “I started tearing up. It’s hard to describe.”
The two West Point grads have a third sibling, a brother, who is also serving in Afghanistan. Their father is a 1982 graduate of West Point.
The president personally presented diplomas to all honor graduates of the Class of 2014, and then shook the hands of every other graduate as they collected diplomas from West Point officials.
Before departing the campus 56 miles north of New York City, the president joined the newly commissioned cadets in the singing of the Army Song, also known as “As the Army Goes Rolling Along.” The president seemed to know most of the lyrics. It is not known whether or not they were transmitted on a TelePrompter, which was positioned nearby.