Just like Clinton, Obama has an argument against what Donald Trump says about foreign policy

President Obama arrives Thursday at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., to deliver his final commencement address of 2016.
(Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)

President Obama defended his tenure as commander-in-chief Thursday while setting out a clear contrast with potential successor Donald Trump, saying the U.S. needs “smart, steady, principled American leadership” in an increasingly interconnected world.

Obama saluted more that 800 graduates of the Air Force Academy in his final commencement address as president, calling it “the highest honor in my life to lead the greatest military in the history of the world.”

“Our military is, by a mile, the strongest in the world,” he said.

See the most-read stories this hour >>


But, while U.S. foreign policy “has to be strong ... it also has to be smart,” he said as he laid out lessons learned during his tenure and those history offers to the nation’s next generation of leaders.

Just as in an economic address a day earlier in Indiana, Obama did not name Trump. But he was unmistakably making an argument against Trump’s temperament and meandering pronouncements, including calls for a more isolationist U.S. foreign policy.

He said that despite serious threats the nation faces from overseas, a temptation to “pull back” or argue that other nations should “fend for themselves” would only give “false comfort.”

“We cannot turn inward,” he said. “Allowing problems to fester over there makes us less secure over here. So as Americans, we have to keep leading and working with others to build the security and prosperity and justice we want in the world.”

Obama said that despite the threats of terrorist networks, Russian aggression in Ukraine, disputes in the South China Sea and civil wars in the Middle East, the world is nonetheless in the safest, most prosperous era in history.

And that will continue if the U.S. keeps embracing its role as a global leader.

“When there’s a problem around the world, they do not call Beijing or Moscow. They call us,” Obama said. “And we lead not by dictating to others but by working with them as partners, by treating other countries and their peoples with respect. Not by lecturing them.”


We lead not by dictating to others but by working with them as partners, by treating other countries and their peoples with respect. Not by lecturing them.

— President Barack Obama

“So we need smart, steady, principled American leadership.

“When we panic, we don’t make good decisions,” he said, citing a favorite example of his – the Ebola crisis of 2014.

“That was a serious threat, and we took it seriously,” Obama said. “But in the midst of it, there was hysteria. ‘Flights must be banned.’ ‘Quarantine citizens.’ These were actual quotes. ‘Seal the border.’ And my favorite: ‘Remove Obama, or millions of Americans die.’”

Of course, Obama ignored such suggestions and a domestic Ebola outbreak never materialized.

Obama’s remarks made no overt reference to the political debate unfolding on the presidential campaign trail. But his national security address came hours before Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee, delivered her own in San Diego.

Obama did acknowledge controversial foreign policy decisions his administration has made and even some that could have been handled differently. He mentioned the U.S.-led bombing in Libya, when Clinton served as his secretary of State, to oust dictator Moammar Kadafi.


“We were right to launch an air campaign to prevent Kadafi from massacring innocent civilians, but we didn’t do enough to plan for the day after, when deep-rooted tribalism plunged Libya into disorder,” Obama said.

He also conceded the ongoing civil war in Syria was “heartbreaking” and “gut-wrenching.”

“As a father, I look at Syria’s children and I see my own,” he said.

But he defended his decision not to authorize military strikes against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad in response to its use of chemical weapons.

“Suggestions for deeper U.S. military involvement in a conflict like the Syrian civil war have to be fully thought through, rigorously examined with an honest assessment of the risks and tradeoffs,” he said. “When we ask those questions, we prevent the kind of mission creep that history teaches us to avoid.”

Obama offered his administration’s policies of engagement with Cuba and Vietnam, as well as the nuclear agreement with Iran, as examples of how diplomacy can more effectivelyensure global stability than conflict.

“Even where we do not hesitate to act on behalf of our security, we should never celebrate war itself,” he said. “War, no matter how noble our intentions may be, promises agony and tragedy. And no one knows this more than those who fight those wars.”

Obama has now addressed graduates from each of the nation’s four service academies twice as president. He offered special tribute to the Air Force and its role in that most coveted of presidential perks.


“I’m really going to miss Air Force One, as well as the incredible airmen that I’ve come to know,” he said. “You are always on time. You never lose my luggage. I don’t have to take off my shoes before I get on.”

As he left Colorado Springs, Obama also met briefly with the pilot of a Thunderbird that crashed after a flyover during the graduation ceremony. Obama thanked the pilot, who saluted as the president approached, and said he was glad to see he wasn’t more seriously injured, according to White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.


How much does Hillary Clinton want to win California? She and Bill have over 30 events in 5 days

A testy Donald Trump lashes out at news media and says, ‘I’m not changing’

Why Gov. Jerry Brown endorsed Hillary, despite a bitter history with the Clintons


For more White House coverage, follow @mikememoli on Twitter.


2:29 p.m.: This story was updated with Obama meeting with the pilot of a Thunderbird that crashed after a flyover during the graduation.

This story was originally published at 12:54 p.m.