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For Naval Academy graduates, Obama maps fight against terrorism

At today's commencement, the president elaborates on his approach, which, beyond battle, emphasizes working with local leaders.

May 23, 2009|Peter Nicholas

WASHINGTON — President Obama told Naval Academy graduates Friday that changing threats to U.S. security will require them to take on new, unorthodox missions that involve more than subduing an enemy in combat.

In his third and final commencement speech of the year, Obama also defended his refusal to countenance harsh treatment of terrorism suspects in U.S. custody.

Obama is in the midst of a running dispute with former Vice President Dick Cheney over the tactics needed to best protect the country from terrorist attacks, with Cheney touting a more tough-minded approach.

Obama spoke before a graduating class of 1,036 that included John Sidney McCain IV -- son of Obama's rival in the 2008 presidential race, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and fourth in a line of McCain Naval Academy graduates. About 30,000 attended the ceremony in Annapolis, Md.

Warning that traditional notions of warfare are outdated, Obama said the military must prepare itself for a new role in meeting the terrorist threat.

"We must overcome the full spectrum of threats," the president said. "The conventional and the unconventional. The nation-state and the terrorist network. The spread of deadly technologies and of hateful ideologies, 18th-century-style piracy and 21st century cyber-threats.

"We need you to defeat the insurgent and the extremist," Obama told the graduating class. "But we also need you to work with the tribal sheik and local leaders from Anbar to Kandahar who want to build a better future for their people."

Presidents traditionally speak at the Naval Academy graduation every three years, rotating among the military academies. This president also has delivered commencement speeches at Arizona State University and at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., this year.

Obama commended the armed forces as an American institution that has retained the public's confidence -- no small feat in an era when respected businesses have crumbled and other institutions have required federal bailouts.

"After an era when so many institutions and individuals acted with such greed and recklessness, it is no wonder that our military remains the most trusted institution in the nation," Obama said.

Amid a much-publicized disagreement with Cheney, Obama used the speech to reiterate his opposition to interrogation techniques practiced in the George W. Bush era and to defend his decision to close the U.S. military-run detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

He also addressed the subject Thursday at the National Archives -- the same day that Cheney delivered a speech arguing that the Bush administration's harsh interrogation methods prevented new terrorist attacks.

Obama told the Naval Academy class of 2009 that "when America strays from our values, it not only undermines the rule of law, it alienates us from our allies, it energizes our adversaries and it endangers our national security and the lives of our troops.

"So as Americans, we reject the false choice between our security and our ideals. We can and we must and we will protect both. And that is just what you will pledge to do in a few moments when you raise your right hand and take your oath."

Obama made special mention of the rescue operation last month carried out by Navy SEALs. Snipers killed three Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean while rescuing the captain of an American cargo ship.

"I will not recount the full story of those five days in April," Obama said. "Much of it is already known. Some of it will never be known. And that is how it should be.

"But here, on this day, at this institution, it must be said: The extraordinary precision and professionalism displayed that day was made possible, in no small measure, by the training, the discipline and the leadership skills that so many of those officers learned at the United States Naval Academy."


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