What Obama Told West Point's Graduating Class

On Wednesday, President Obama delivered the commencement speech for the graduating West Point class of 2014. In his address, the president outlined America's upcoming military strategy, explaining that even as the U.S. remains the world's most indispensable nation, it should restrain itself from participating in too many international incidents. His speech came a day after Obama announced a plan to remove almost all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016.

Obama went on to tell the West Point graduating class...

1. Russia and China are clear threats.

As if we didn't already think Putin is scary, at the beginning of his speech, Obama warned the world to be wary of Russia and China, saying "Russia’s aggression towards former Soviet states unnerves capitals in Europe while China’s economic rise and military reach worries its neighbors."

2. As the world changes, America's involvement in the world needs to change.

Obama argued that it has become harder for the United States to ignore international conflicts, given the rate at which we're bombarded with information these days. Obama explained:

24-hour news and social media makes it impossible to ignore the continuation of sectarian conflicts, failing states and popular uprisings that might have received only passing notice a generation ago

3. The U.S. has pragmatic reasons to get involved in conflicts outside of our borders.

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Obama argued that any international event can have ramifications for American citizens. He said, "We don’t have a choice to ignore what happens beyond our borders. If nuclear materials are not secure, that poses a danger to American citizens.”

4. The U.S. has a moral imperative to get involved in conflicts outside of our borders.

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Obama said, "In the 21st century, American isolationism is not an option... I believe that a world of greater freedom and tolerance is... a moral imperative." Specifically, he assured the audience he would do everything in his power to try to rescue the lost Nigerian girls and ensure that education is still available to girls in that region. He also promised to put pressure on Egypt, saying "we can and will persistently press for reforms that the Egyptian people have demanded.”

5. Not every problem has a military solution.

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"Our military has no peer," Obama began, but went on to urge against using military action at every opportunity. He said:

I would betray my duty to you, and to the country we love, if I sent you into harm’s way simply because I saw a problem somewhere in the world that needed to be fixed, or because I was worried about critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak.

He went on to argue that the U.S. often ends up regretting decisions when it rushes too quickly into military conflicts. "Some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences," Obama explained. Raise your hands if you regret going into Iraq!

6. We need to use hard power differently.

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Obama told the audience that military action should be reserved for situations in which Americans are in grave danger. He explained:

The United States will use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when our core interests demand it -- when our people are threatened; when our livelihoods are at stake; when the security of our allies is in danger.

That sounds like a lot of "when's"....

7. We need to use soft power differently.

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Obama urged the use of diplomatic action, sanctions, and working with international bodies in cases when U.S. citizens are not directly in harm's way. He said:

When issues of global concern do not pose a direct threat to the United States, when such issues are at stake, when crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction but do not directly threaten us, then the threshold for military action must be higher. In such circumstances, we should not go it alone. Instead, we must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action.

8. The face of terrorism has changed.

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According to Obama, the face of terrorism has had some work done. He explained:

Today’s principal threat no longer comes from a centralized al-Qaida leadership. Instead it comes from decentralized al-Qaida affiliates and extremists, many with agendas focused in the countries where they operate. And this lessens the possibility of large-scale 9/11-style attacks against the homeland, but it heightens the danger of U.S. personnel overseas being attacked, as we saw in Benghazi

9. The U.S. should not work alone.

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Obama stressed that the U.S. needs to create allies in countries that have terrorist cells. He expressed hope that as the U.S. moves troops out of Afghanistan, it will be able to focus on forming partnerships in other countries in the region. He also spoke about several initiatives that he believes will help build partnerships abroad, namely a network of alliances from South Asia through Northern Africa. He also spoke about a new counterterrorism fund he is asking Congress to approve, and expressed hope that the U.S. would be able to use the money to work more closely with allies in Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Mali. The fund will also be used to support Syria’s neighbors. Obama got a little passive aggressive here, saying pointedly:

We will continue to coordinate with our friends and allies in Europe and the Arab World to push for a political resolution of this crisis and to make sure that those countries and not just the United States are contributing their fair share of support to the Syrian people.

Ouch, thought Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

10. The U.S. should work with international organizations.

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Obama cited Ukraine and Iran as examples of successful work on the part of international organizations, saying "working with international institutions, has given a chance for the Ukrainian people to choose their future -- without us firing a shot.”

About Iran, he argued:

For the first time in a decade, we have a very real chance of achieving a breakthrough agreement, one that is more effective and durable than what we could have achieved through the use of force. And throughout these negotiations, it has been our willingness to work through multilateral channels that kept the world on our side.

But, he warned that America, alone can't support these organization. He called on allies within NATO to “pull their weight to counter terrorism and respond to failed states and train a network of partners.” Isn't that always the problem with group projects... sigh.

11. Follow the Golden Rule

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Obama argued that we need to do onto others as we wants others to do onto us. He said:

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 is our willingness to affirm them through our actions.

12. The American government will be more transparent with the American people

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I'll believe it when I see it, Obama. Obama said:

Our intelligence community has done outstanding work and we have to continue to protect sources and methods, but when we cannot explain our efforts clearly and publicly, we face terrorist propaganda and international suspicion, we erode legitimacy with our partners and our people, and we reduce accountability in our own government.

Finally, Obama left us with this tidbit of wisdom: "Our actions should meet a simple test: We must not create more enemies than we take off the battlefield.” That sounds like a good rule for life.

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