Washington politicians and all Americans can accomplish anything if they follow the example set by U.S. troops, President Barack Obama said during his State of the Union address tonight.
All of official Washington – including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and all the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — was in the House of Representatives to hear the president’s address.
In a speech dominated by domestic concerns, Obama began by extolling the example set by members of the armed services.
“Last month, I went to Andrews Air Force Base and welcomed home some of our last troops to serve in Iraq,” he said. “Together, we offered a final, proud salute to the colors under which more than a million of our fellow citizens fought – and several thousand gave their lives.”
The generation serving in the military today has made the United States safer and more respected around the world, the president said. All American troops are out of Iraq, Osama bin Laden is dead and al-Qaeda is on the run. In Afghanistan, U.S., NATO and Afghan forces have reversed the Taliban’s momentum and some U.S. troops are coming home, he noted.
“These achievements are a testament to the courage, selflessness and teamwork of America’s armed forces,” he said. “At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations. They’re not consumed with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together.”
Obama asked the Congress – well known for its partisan divide – to imagine “what we could accomplish if we followed their example.”
Working together, Americans could build a country that is a leader in education, in industry, in clean energy and in high-tech manufacturing, Obama said. Working together, Americans could put in place “an economy built to last, where hard work pays off, and responsibility is rewarded,” he added.
With the Iraq war over, the United States has struck decisive blows against al-Qaida. “From Pakistan to Yemen, the al-Qaida operatives who remain are scrambling, knowing that they can’t escape the reach of the United States of America,” he said.
The strategy in Afghanistan is paying off and 33,000 U.S. troops will leave that country by the end of the summer. More and more, Afghan national security forces are assuming responsibility for protecting their own land, their own people, the president said.
“This transition to Afghan lead will continue, and we will build an enduring partnership with Afghanistan, so that it is never again a source of attacks against America,” he said.
The Arab world is in a wave of change, Obama said, and the clearest example is in Libya. “A year ago, [Moammar] Gadhafi was one of the world’s longest-serving dictators – a murderer with American blood on his hands,” he said. “Today, he is gone. And in Syria, I have no doubt that the [Bashar] Assad regime will soon discover that the forces of change can’t be reversed, and that human dignity can’t be denied.”
How this whole tide of change from Tunisia to Syria and beyond will end is uncertain, the president said. The people of the region must make the decisions, but the United States will work with all to advocate “those values that have served our own country so well,” he said.
“We will stand against violence and intimidation. We will stand for the rights and dignity of all human beings – men and women; Christians, Muslims, and Jews,” he continued. “We will support policies that lead to strong and stable democracies and open markets, because tyranny is no match for liberty.”
The United States will work to isolate those who seek to disturb the peace, Obama said, noting increased economic sanctions against Iran for its nuclear program. “The regime is more isolated than ever before; its leaders are faced with crippling sanctions, and as long as they shirk their responsibilities, this pressure will not relent,” he said.
All cards are on the table for stopping Iran from having nuclear weapons, the president added. “Let there be no doubt: America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal,” he said. “But a peaceful resolution of this issue is still possible, and far better, and if Iran changes course and meets its obligations, it can rejoin the community of nations.”
The president said America’s worldwide leadership has been renewed and countries look to its steady hand and influence. “Our oldest alliances in Europe and Asia are stronger than ever,” he said. “Our ties to the Americas are deeper. Our iron-clad commitment to Israel’s security has meant the closest military cooperation between our two countries in history. We’ve made it clear that America is a Pacific power, and a new beginning in Burma has lit a new hope.”
Those who say that America is in decline “don’t know what they’re talking about,” Obama said. “Yes, the world is changing. No, we can’t control every event. But America remains the one indispensable nation in world affairs – and as long as I’m president, I intend to keep it that way.”
Obama once more promised to maintain the finest military in the world. American freedom has endured because men and women in uniform fought for it, he said.
“As they come home, we must serve them as well as they served us,” he said. “That includes giving them the care and benefits they have earned – which is why we’ve increased annual VA spending every year I’ve been president. And it means enlisting our veterans in the work of rebuilding our nation.”
Obama ended his address where it started – using the example of U.S. service members for Congress. “Those of us who’ve been sent here to serve can learn from the service of our troops,” he said. “When you put on that uniform, it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, Asian or Latino, conservative or liberal, rich or poor, gay or straight.
“When you’re marching into battle, you look out for the person next to you, or the mission fails,” he continued. “When you’re in the thick of the fight, you rise or fall as one unit, serving one nation, leaving no one behind.”
Obama said one of his proudest possessions is the U.S. flag that the SEAL Team took with them on the mission to get bin Laden. “On it are each of their names,” he said. “Some may be Democrats. Some may be Republicans. But that doesn’t matter. Just like it didn’t matter that day in the Situation Room, when I sat next to Bob Gates – a man who was George Bush’s defense secretary; and Hillary Clinton, a woman who ran against me for president.
“All that mattered that day was the mission. No one thought about politics. No one thought about themselves. One of the young men involved in the raid later told me that he didn’t deserve credit for the mission. It only succeeded, he said, because every single member of that unit did their job.”
The same is so with America, Obama said. It took more than two centuries and millions of people working toward a common goal. “This nation is great because we built it together,” he said. “This nation is great because we worked as a team. This nation is great because we get each others’ backs.”
If Americans remember that truth, there is no challenge too great, no mission too hard, the president said. “As long as we’re joined in common purpose, as long as we maintain our common resolve, our journey moves forward, our future is hopeful, and the state of our union will always be strong,” he said.