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West Point A Familiar Setting For Obama War Speech

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West Point A Familiar Setting For Obama War Speech


West Point A Familiar Setting For Obama War Speech

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Now, President Obama is not the first president to travel to West Point to speak during the war in Afghanistan. Former President George W. Bush made the trip in June 2002. That was the time when American troops had been in Afghanistan for less than a year. Mr. Bush presented an optimistic view of progress in Afghanistan and hinted at a war that was yet to come.

NPR's Don Gonyea looks back on that address and how it relates to the speech that Mr. Obama will deliver this evening.

DON GONYEA: A presidential speech at West Point carries a certain weight. As the oldest of the service academies, it puts the focus on the role of commander in chief in a special way. Every president who comes here, pays tribute to its long history and many traditions, just as George W. Bush did as a second-year president.

Former President GEORGE W. BUSH: In every corner of America, the words West Point command immediate respect. This place, where the Hudson River bends, is more than a fine institution of learning.

GONYEA: As he spoke to the West Point graduating class of 2002, President Bush was upbeat about the war in Afghanistan, launched just weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks of the previous year.

Pres. BUSH: Our war on terror is only begun, but in Afghanistan it was begun well.

GONYEA: Political scientist and military specialist, John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, says it was both a widespread and a reasonable view at the time. And because Afghanistan was seen as going so well, the Bush administration was already shifting its attention to the next war � with Iraq.

Professor JOHN MEARSHEIMER (Political Science, University of Chicago, Military Specialist): Because the Bush administration, at that point in time, felt that it had won a stunning victory in Afghanistan, and it had, in effect, found the magic formula for winning wars against countries in the Middle East, and therefore it was on to Iraq, where they believed we would win another stunning victory.

GONYEA: But, Mearsheimer, himself a West Point graduate, immediately adds what we all know now.

Prof. MEARSHEIMER: But, of course, not only did the war in Afghanistan go south, but we jumped into a quagmire in Iraq.

GONYEA: That 2002 George W. Bush speech at West Point is also known for introducing what would later be known as the Bush doctrine: the assertion that the U.S. can launch preemptive war against a country, such as Iraq, that is perceived to be threatening the U.S., even if that threat is not believed to be immediate. Here's how he put it that day:

Pres. BUSH: If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long.

GONYEA: And as he spoke to graduating West Point cadets, he used the word preemptive for the first time in a major speech.

Pres. BUSH: And our security will require all Americans to be forward-looking and resolute, to be ready for preemptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives.

(Soundbite of applause)

GONYEA: All through last year's campaign, Mr. Obama was critical of the Bush doctrine. As president, he often calls Iraq a war of choice. Still, he has yet to lay out his own national security strategy - that's expected to come following a quadrennial review of military posture currently under way at the Pentagon.

Which brings us to tonight. More than seven years after Bush's positive assessment of Afghanistan, Mr. Obama faces a much more difficult situation there. His own commanding general has told him the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is failing. The new president may have inherited the war, but the choices he announces at West Point will make it his own.

New polling, released this week, shows slightly more than half of the American public now opposes the war in Afghanistan, weary of a battle they thought would be over years ago.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: We're glad you're with us on this public radio station this morning. And, of course, we will continue covering this story throughout the day and throughout the week. You can hear NPR's special coverage of President Obama's address tonight at eight o'clock Eastern on many member stations, and we will also have coverage at

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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