Renewing American Leadership
Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention
I want to start today with a few words about the unimaginable tragedy in Colorado last week. We've since learned that among the victims were four people who had served - or were serving - our country in uniform. Today, our hearts go out to the families of John Larimer of the U.S. Navy; Rebecca Wingo, an Air Force veteran; Jesse Childress, an Army veteran and member of the Air Force reserve; and Jonathan Blunk, a Navy veteran who died shielding his girlfriend from the spray of bullets. The loss of four Americans who served our country only adds to the profound tragedy of that day. All Americans are grateful for their service and deeply saddened by their deaths. We mourn them and we will remember them.
The VFW is now over two million strong. It has a special place in America's heart. Some of you fought recently, in Iraq or Afghanistan. Others are old enough to have marched, flown, or sailed by orders of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Whatever your age, whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, whenever you served - there's one thing you have in common: You answered the call of your country in a time of war. From December 7 th , 1941 to September 11, 2001, whenever America has been tested, you stepped forward. You come from our farms, our great cities, our small towns and quiet neighborhoods. Many of you have known violence so that your neighbors could only know peace. You have done more than protect America; your courage and service defines America. You are America at our best and it is an honor to address you.
Our veterans are part of a proud tradition that stretches back to the battlefields at Lexington and Concord - and now to places like Fallujah and Kandahar. Year after year, our men and women in uniform have added proud achievements to their record of service. And President Obama pointed to some of them yesterday in his speech.
Any time our military accomplishes a vital mission it is a proud moment for our nation. But we owe our veterans and our military more than just an accounting of our successes. They deserve a fair and frank assessment of the whole picture - of where we are and where we want to be. And when it comes to national security and foreign policy, as with our economy, the last few years have been a time of declining influence and missed opportunity.
Just consider some of the challenges I discussed at your last national convention:
Since then, has the American economy recovered?
Has our ability to shape world events been enhanced, or diminished?
Have we gained greater confidence among our allies, and greater respect from our adversaries?
And, perhaps most importantly, has the most severe security threat facing America and our friends, a nuclear-armed Iran, become more or less likely?
These clear measures are the ultimate tests of American leadership. And, by these standards, we haven't seen much in the President's first term that inspires confidence in a second.
The President's policies have made it harder to recover from the deepest recession in seventy years ... exposed the military to cuts that no one can justify ... compromised our national-security secrets ... and in dealings with other nations, given trust where it is not earned, insult where it is not deserved, and apology where it is not due.
From Berlin to Cairo to the United Nations, President Obama has shared his view of America and its place among nations. I have come here today to share mine.
I am an unapologetic believer in the greatness of this country. I am not ashamed of American power. I take pride that throughout history our power has brought justice where there was tyranny, peace where there was conflict, and hope where there was affliction and despair. I do not view America as just one more point on the strategic map, one more power to be balanced. I believe our country is the greatest force for good the world has ever known, and that our influence is needed as much now as ever. And I am guided by one overwhelming conviction and passion: This century must be an American Century.
In 1941, Henry Luce called on his countrymen -just then realizing their strength - "to create the first great American century." And they succeeded: together with their allies, they won World War II, they rescued Europe, they defeated Communism, and America took its place as leader of the free world. Across the globe, they fought, they bled, they led. They showed the world the extraordinary courage of the American heart and the generosity of the American spirit.
That courage and generosity remains unchanged today. But sadly, this president has diminished American leadership, and we are reaping the consequences. The world is dangerous, destructive, chaotic. And the two men running to be your commander-in-chief must offer their answers to the challenges we face.
Like a watchman in the night, we must remain at our post - and keep guard of the freedom that defines and ennobles us, and our friends. In an American Century, we have the strongest economy and the strongest military in the world. In an American Century, we secure peace through our strength. And if by absolute necessity we must employ it, we must wield our strength with resolve. In an American Century, we lead the free world and the free world leads the entire world.
If we do not have the strength or vision to lead, then other powers will take our place, pulling history in a very different direction. A just and peaceful world depends on a strong and confident America. I pledge to you that if I become commander-in-chief, the United States of America will fulfill its duty, and its destiny.
American leadership depends, as it always has, on our economic strength, on our military strength, and on our moral strength. If any of these falter, no skill of diplomacy or presidential oratory can compensate. Today, the strength of our economy is in jeopardy.
A healthy American economy is what underwrites American power. When growth is missing, government revenue falls, social spending rises, and many in Washington look to cut defense spending as an easy out. That includes our current President.
Today, we are just months away from an arbitrary, across-the-board budget reduction that would saddle the military with a trillion dollars in cuts, severely shrink our force structure, and impair our ability to meet and deter threats. Don't bother trying to find a serious military rationale behind any of this, unless that rationale is wishful thinking. Strategy is not driving President Obama's massive defense cuts. In fact, his own Secretary of Defense warned that these reductions would be "devastating." And he is right.
That devastation starts at home. These cuts would only weaken an already stretched VA system and impair our solemn commitment that every veteran receives care second to none. I will not allow that to happen.
This is not the time for the President's radical cuts in the military. Look around the globe. Other major powers are rapidly adding to their military capabilities, some with intentions very different from ours. The regime in Tehran is drawing closer to developing a nuclear weapon. The threat of radical Islamic terrorism persists. The threat of weapons of mass destruction proliferation is ever-present. And we are still at war and still have uniformed men and women in conflict.
All this and more is ongoing in the world. And yet the President has chosen this moment for wholesale reductions in the nation's military capacity. When the biggest announcement in his last State of the Union address on improving our military was that the Pentagon will start using more clean energy - then you know it's time for a change.
We're not the first people to observe this. It is reported that Bob Gates, the President's first secretary of defense, bluntly addressed another security problem within this administration. After secret operational details of the bin Laden raid were given to reporters, Secretary Gates walked into the West Wing and told the Obama team to "shut up." He added a colorful word for emphasis.
Lives of American servicemen and women are at stake. But astonishingly, the administration failed to change its ways. More top-secret operations were leaked, even some involving covert action in Iran.
This isn't a partisan issue; it's a national security crisis. And yesterday, Democrat Senator Dianne Feinstein, Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said, quote, "I think the White House has to understand that some of this is coming from their ranks."
This conduct is contemptible. It betrays our national interest. It compromises our men and women in the field. And it demands a full and prompt investigation by a special counsel, with explanation and consequence. Obama appointees, who are accountable to President Obama's Attorney General, should not be responsible for investigating the leaks coming from the Obama White House.
Whoever provided classified information to the media, seeking political advantage for the administration, must be exposed, dismissed, and punished. The time for stonewalling is over.
It is not enough to say the matter is being looked into, and leave it at that. When the issue is the political use of highly sensitive national security information, it is unacceptable to say, "We'll report our findings after Election Day."
Exactly who in the White House betrayed these secrets? Did a superior authorize it? These are things that Americans are entitled to know - and they are entitled to know right now. If the President believes - as he said last week - that the buck stops with him, then he owes all Americans a full and prompt accounting of the facts.
And let me make this very clear: These events make the decision we face in November all the more important. What kind of White House would reveal classified material for political gain? I'll tell you right now: Mine won't.
The harm done when national security secrets are betrayed extends, of course, to the trust that allies place in the United States.
The operating principle of American foreign policy has been to work with our allies so that we can deter aggression before it breaks out into open conflict. That policy depends on nurturing our alliances and standing up for our common values.
Yet the President has moved in the opposite direction.
It began with the sudden abandonment of friends in Poland and the Czech Republic. They had courageously agreed to provide sites for our anti-missile systems, only to be told, at the last hour, that the agreement was off. As part of the so-called reset in policy, missile defenses were sacrificed as a unilateral concession to the Russian government.
If that gesture was designed to inspire good will from Russia, it clearly missed the mark. The Russian government defended the dictator in Damascus, arming him as he slaughtered the Syrian people.
We can only guess what Vladimir Putin makes of the Obama administration. He regained the Russian presidency in a corrupt election, and for that, he got a congratulatory call from the Oval Office. And then there was that exchange picked up by a microphone that President Obama didn't know was on. We heard him asking Dmitry Medvedev to tell Mr. Putin to give him "space." "This is my last election," President Obama said, and "After my election I'll have more flexibility."
Why is flexibility with Russian leaders more important than transparency to the American people?
President Obama had a moment of candor, however, just the other day. He said that the actions of the Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez have not had a serious national security impact on us. In my view, inviting Hezbollah into our hemisphere is severe, serious, and a threat.
But at least he was consistent. After all, this is the president who faltered when the Iranian people were looking for support in their struggle against the ayatollahs. That uprising was treated as an inconvenient problem for the President's policy of engagement, instead of as a moral and strategic opportunity. That terrible misjudgment should never be repeated. When unarmed women and men in Tehran find the courage to confront their oppressors, at risk of torture and death, they should hear the unequivocal voice of an American president affirming their right to be free.
I will leave Reno this evening on a trip abroad that will take me to England, Poland, and Israel. And since I wouldn't venture into another country to question American foreign policy, I will tell you right here - before I leave - what I think of this administration's shabby treatment of one of our finest friends.
President Obama is fond of lecturing Israel's leaders. He was even caught by a microphone deriding them. He has undermined their position, which was tough enough as it was. And even at the United Nations, to the enthusiastic applause of Israel's enemies, he spoke as if our closest ally in the Middle East was the problem.
The people of Israel deserve better than what they have received from the leader of the free world. And the chorus of accusations, threats, and insults at the United Nations should never again include the voice of the President of the United States.
There are values, causes, and nations that depend on American strength, on the clarity of our purpose, and on the reliability of our commitments. There is work in this world that only America and our allies can do, hostile powers that only we can deter, and challenges that only we can overcome.
For the past decade, among those challenges has been the war in Afghanistan. As commander-in-chief, I will have a solemn duty to our men and women in uniform. A president owes our troops, their families, and the American people a clear explanation of our mission, and a commitment not to play politics with the decisions of war.
I have been critical of the President's decision to withdraw the surge troops during the fighting season, against the advice of the commanders on the ground. President Obama would have you believe that anyone who disagrees with his decisions is arguing for endless war. But the route to more war - and to potential attacks here at home - is a politically timed retreat.
As president, my goal in Afghanistan will be to complete a successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014. I will evaluate conditions on the ground and solicit the best advice of our military commanders. And I will affirm that my duty is not to my political prospects, but to the security of the nation.
We face another continuing challenge in a rising China. China is attentive to the interests of its government - but it too often disregards the rights of its people. It is selective in the freedoms it allows; and, as with its one-child policy, it can be ruthless in crushing the freedoms it denies. In conducting trade with America, it permits flagrant patent and copyright violations ... forestalls American businesses from competing in its market ... and manipulates its currency to obtain unfair advantage. It is in our mutual interest for China to be a partner for a stable and secure world, and we welcome its participation in trade. But the cheating must finally be brought to a stop. President Obama hasn't done it and won't do it. I will.
We'll need that same clarity of purpose and resolve in the Middle East. America cannot be neutral in the outcome there. We must clearly stand for the values of representative government, economic opportunity, and human rights. And we must stand against the extension of Iranian or jihadist influence.
Egypt is at the center of this historical drama. In many ways, it has the power to tip the balance in the Arab world toward freedom and modernity. As president, I will not only direct the billions in assistance we give to Egypt toward that goal, but I will also work with partner nations to place conditions on their assistance as well. Unifying our collective influence behind a common purpose will foster the development of a government that represents all Egyptians, maintains peace with Israel, and promotes peace throughout the region. The United States is willing to help Egypt support peace and prosperity, but we will not be complicit in oppression and instability.
There is no greater danger in the world today than the prospect of the ayatollahs in Tehran possessing nuclear weapons capability. Yet for all the talks and conferences, all of the extensions and assurances, can anyone say we are farther from this danger now than four years ago?
The same ayatollahs who each year mark a holiday by leading chants of "Death to America" are not going to be talked out of their pursuit of nuclear weapons. What's needed is all the firmness, clarity, and moral courage that we and our allies can gather. Sanctions must be enforced without exception, cutting off the regime's sources of wealth. Negotiations must secure full and unhindered access for inspections. As it is, the Iranian regime claims the right to enrich nuclear material for supposedly peaceful purposes. This claim is discredited by years of deception. A clear line must be drawn: There must be a full suspension of any enrichment, period.
And at every turn, Iran must know that the United States and our allies stand as one in these critical objectives. Only in this way can we successfully counter the catastrophic threat that Iran presents. I pledge to you and to all Americans that if I become commander-in-chief, I will use every means necessary to protect ourselves and the region, and to prevent the worst from happening while there is still time.
It is a mistake - and sometimes a tragic one - to think that firmness in American foreign policy can bring only tension or conflict. The surest path to danger is always weakness and indecision. In the end, it is resolve that moves events in our direction, and strength that keeps the peace.
I will not surrender America's leadership in the world. We must have confidence in our cause, clarity in our purpose, and resolve in our might.
This is very simple: if you do not want America to be the strongest nation on earth, I am not your President. You have that President today.
The 21 st century can and must be an American Century. It began with terror, war, and economic calamity. It is our duty to steer it onto the path of freedom, peace, and prosperity.
Fewer members of the Greatest Generation are with us today - and they can't hold the torch as high as they have in the past. We must now seize the torch they carried so gallantly and at such sacrifice. It is an eternal torch of decency, freedom and hope. It is not America's torch alone. But it is America's duty - and honor - to hold it high enough so that all the world can see its light.
Believe in America.
Thank you and God Bless the United States of America.