-- Evoking the memories of Sept. 11, 2001, Vice President Cheney called upon a new generation of military officers Wednesday "to hunt down the terrorists before they can hit us again" and declared that the United States is on course for victory in the war on terrorism.
In a commencement address at the U.S. Air Force Academy, he offered a sober, tough-minded portrait of the mission ahead of the graduating cadets, a task far more daunting than they imagined when they enrolled four years ago just before hijacked jets slammed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is a war we are winning," Cheney told the 906 graduating cadets, their families and underclassmen gathered in Falcon Stadium. But much hard work remains, he added. "After 9/11, this nation made a decision. We will not sit back and wait for future attacks. We will prevent those attacks by taking the fight to the enemy."
The vice president's speech, echoing a similar commencement address by President Bush at the U.S. Naval Academy last week, came at a difficult time for the U.S. military operation in Iraq. While a newly elected government has taken office in Baghdad, the anti-American insurgency has launched a fresh wave of violence that killed more than 750 Iraqis and 78 U.S. troops in May.
Cheney paid tribute to those slain in Iraq and hailed the downfall of Saddam Hussein but did not dwell on the current travails there. In an interview broadcast two days before his visit here, he said that the insurgents were in their "last throes" and predicted that the bulk of U.S. forces would withdraw by the time the administration leaves office in January 2009, though a smaller long-term presence may be necessary.
The class that graduated here Wednesday came of age in the era of 9/11, having matriculated in the innocent days before the attacks, when, as Cheney put it, most expected "a long period of relative quiet with few real threats to our security," only to find their future drastically transformed shortly after classes began.
"A great deal has happened since that day," Cheney said, "but we have much yet to do as a nation and you will be among those who lead us to victory against freedom's enemies."
For the Air Force Academy, nestled here in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, the past four years proved tumultuous in other ways, too. Allegations of widespread sexual harassment and assault rocked the academy in 2003, forced the ouster of top commanders and continue to reverberate now as an airman and a senior cadet face separate court-martial proceedings. In recent weeks, authorities also have begun investigating allegations that cadets were regularly pressured to convert to evangelical Christianity. In response, the Air Force issued a statement to major commands last week reminding them to avoid proselytizing.
Cheney mentioned none of this in his remarks, which were flavored by the legacy of Sept. 11. For the vice president, it was a moment to come full circle, having delivered the commencement address here in 2001, the last before the attacks. In reflecting on the developments since, he blamed complacency in previous administrations.
"During the '80s and '90s, as terror networks began to wage attacks against Americans, there was a tendency to treat those attacks as isolated incidents," he said. "And those acts were answered, if at all, on an ad hoc basis with subpoenas, criminal indictments and the occasional cruise missile. As time passed, the terrorists concluded that they could hit America with very little consequence."
Cheney described the terrorists as people who "hate our country and oppose everything we stand for." He added: "This continuing threat demands a unified, effective response to make this nation better able to respond to any future attacks, to reduce our vulnerability and, above all, to hunt down the terrorists before they can hit us again."
In an interview aired Monday night on CNN's "Larry King Live," Cheney acknowledged that U.S. forces remain far from capturing Osama bin Laden. "We've had him on the run," he said, but "I can't say that we've ever been close to bin Laden."
Cheney said the United States is "making major progress" in Iraq and defended the invasion. "I'm absolutely convinced we did the right thing in Iraq," he said. He declined to set deadlines for withdrawing U.S. troops, but when asked if he expected it "in your administration," he replied: "I do." He added: "We may well have some kind of presence there over a period of time. But I think the level of activity that we see today, from a military standpoint, I think will clearly decline. I think they're in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency."