By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 28, 2005
President Bush offered an upbeat assessment of the war on terrorism yesterday, saying the United States is on the road to victory after toppling brutal governments in Afghanistan and Iraq, dismantling a nuclear arms network, routing terrorists and encouraging democratic reformers across the world.
"Thanks to the men and women of the United States military, our strategy is working," Bush said during a graduation address at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. "We are winning the war on terror."
Speaking before an audience of graduating midshipmen and their friends and family numbering close to 32,000, the president also defended the Pentagon's proposal to close 33 military bases and scale down 29 others across the country. He said the consolidations will save billions of dollars that can be better spent helping to fashion the military into a "faster, lighter, more agile and more lethal" force needed to battle terrorists.
Bush acknowledged that base closings are often painful to cities and towns that lose the attendant jobs and economic activity, but he said the change is an essential part of ensuring that the military meets modern challenges to the nation's security.
"To meet the new threats, we must transform our domestic force posture as well, and that will require closing and realigning military bases," Bush said.
As governor of Texas during the last round of base closings a decade ago, Bush said he saw "firsthand how hard base closings can be on local communities." A congressionally appointed panel is reviewing the Pentagon proposal before making final decisions, and Bush promised to provide federal economic development aid, job training and redevelopment plans for communities where bases are closed.
"The process will be impartial and fair," Bush told the academy graduates. ". . . It will result in a military that is more efficient and better prepared so you can better protect the American people against the dangers of this new century."
Bush told the graduates that the Pentagon is spending hundreds of billions of dollars on new technology so that the United States can "redefine war on our terms" and ensure victory.
Still, he told the 976 graduates, the vast majority of whom are becoming officers in the Navy or Marines, technology is only as good for the strength of the military as the mentality that accompanies it. "All the advanced technology in the world will not transform our military if we do not transform our thinking," Bush said.
The graduation, held on the grass field of Navy-Marine Corps Stadium under a hazy, sunny sky, was awash in military pomp and celebration. The square-shouldered midshipmen were sharp in their dress whites and blues as they awaited their commissions as military officers.
Booming cannon blasts marked the start of the ceremony, and six Blue Angels jets performed a low, slick flyby over the stadium, adding excitement to the already buoyant crowd. The graduates offered loud cheers for one another as their names were called to receive their diplomas, with the loudest cheers reserved for colleagues who made it despite borderline grade-point averages or other setbacks.
Bush said he could relate, given his performance as a student at Yale. As he recited some of the many traditions that mark life at the academy, Bush joked: "You threw pennies at Tecumseh, the god of 2.0. I knew him pretty well when I was at school."
The president stayed through the three-hour ceremony, shaking hands and posing for pictures with every graduate. He later delighted the crowd by donning one of the class gifts to him: a blue and gold sweat suit jacket.
Despite the high spirits, the mood underlying the event was undeniably different than during Bush's last commencement speech to Naval Academy graduates, in 2001. Then, war seemed a remote prospect, not a daily reality. Bush, his face smoother, and his hair less gray, told the 2001 graduates that they were inheriting "a safer and more peaceful world."
That changed just over three months later, with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which were followed by the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. More than 1,600 U.S. troops have died in Iraq, and thousands of others have been wounded. Among those killed since 2001 were 10 Naval Academy graduates.
Bush briefly mentioned the mounting toll in his address, noting that "some of our men and women in uniform have given their lives in this cause, and others have returned home with terrible injuries. America honors their sacrifice, and we will uphold the cause they served."
Despite the ambivalence evidenced by Americans in public opinion polls about whether the Iraq war was worth waging, Bush insisted that it is contributing to U.S. security. He pointed to elections there and in Afghanistan as proof that the United States has liberated more than 50 million people who formerly lived under oppression, setting an example that, he said, has been noticed elsewhere.
In Central Asia and the Middle East, he said, "we are seeing a rise of a new generation whose hearts burn for freedom and they're going to have it. America is standing with these democratic reformers because we know the only force powerful enough to stop the rise of tyranny and terror, and replace hatred with hope, is the force of human freedom."
Still, the president said serious hurdles remain, including the insurgency in Iraq and the lurking possibility that terrorists could attempt to strike anywhere, at any time.
"We face brutal and determined enemies -- men who celebrate murder, incite suicide and thirst for absolute power," Bush said. "These enemies will not be stopped by negotiations, or concessions or appeals to reason. In this war, there is only one option -- and that is victory."