Bill Clinton photo

Remarks at the United States Air Force Academy Commencement Ceremony in Colorado Springs, Colorado

May 31, 1995

The President. Thank you very much, General Stein.

Audience member. Soo-o-ey! [Laughter]

The President. That's my home State cheer, for those of you unused to foreign languages being spoken here in Falcon Stadium. [Laughter] Thank you very much.

General Stein, thank you. Secretary Widnall, General Fogleman, Governor Romer, Congressman Ramstad; to the distinguished faculty and staff; to the proud parents, family, and friends; to the members of the Cadet Wing: We gather here to celebrate this very important moment in your life and in the life of our Nation. Gentlemen and gentleladies of this class, the pride of '95, this is your day. And you are only one speech, one pretty short speech—[laughter]— away from being second lieutenants.

I am honored to share this day with some exceptionally accomplished alumni of the Air Force Academy: General Fogleman, the first of your graduates to be the Air Force Chief of Staff; General Hopper, the first African-American graduate of the Academy to serve as the Commandant of Cadets; and a member of my staff, Robert Bell, who is the first graduate of the Air Force Academy to be the Senior Director for Defense Policy and Arms Control at the National Security Council. As I look out at all of you, I imagine it won't be too long before there's a graduate of the Air Force Academy in the Oval Office. If it's all the same to you, I'd like to delay it for just a few years. [Laughter]

I also want to congratulate the Air Force Academy on extending its lock on the Commander in Chief's trophy here that—I'm in your stadium, I think I ought to mention that your winning squad came to see me in the White House not very long ago, and I said that before I became President I didn't understand that when I heard that the Commander in Chief's trophy was a traveling trophy, that meant it was supposed to go back and forth between Washington and Colorado Springs every year.

I want to do my part in another longstanding tradition. By the power vested in me as Commander in Chief, I hereby grant amnesty to cadets who are marching tours or serving restrictions or confinements for minor misconduct. Now, General Stein, I have to leave it to you to define which offenses are minor, but on this day, even in this conservative age, I trust you will be fairly liberal in your interpretation of the term. [Laughter]

Members of the class of 1995, you are about to become officers in the United States Air Force. You should be very proud of what you have already accomplished. But you should be sobered by the important responsibilities you are about to assume. From this day forward, every day you must defend our Nation, protect the lives of the men and women under your command, and represent the best of America.

I want to say here as an aside, I have seen something of the debate in the last few days on the question of whether, in this time of necessity to cut budgets, we ought to close one of the service academies. And I just want to say I think that's one of the worst ideas I ever heard of.

It was General Eisenhower who as President, along with the Congress, so long ago now recognized that national defense required a national commitment to education. But our commitment through the service academies to the education and preparation of the finest military officers in the world must never wane. And I hope your commitment to the cause of education as an important element in what makes our country great and strong and safe will never wane.

As President, my first responsibility is to protect and enhance the safety of the American people and to strengthen our country. It is a responsibility that you now have chosen to share. So today, I thought what we ought to do is talk about the steps that we will have to take together to make the world safer for America in the 21st century.

Our security objectives over the last 50 years have been dictated by straightforward events often beyond our control. But at least they were straightforward and clear. In World War II, the objective was simple: Win the war. In the cold war, the objective was clear: Contain communism and prevent nuclear war. In the postcold-war world, the objectives are often more complex, and it is clear that American security in the 21st century will be determined by forces that are operating both beyond and within our own borders.

While the world you will face is far from free of danger, you must know that you are entering active service in a moment of enormous hope. We are dramatically reducing the nuclear threat. For the first time since the dawn of the nuclear age, there are no Russian missiles pointed at the people of the United States.

From the Middle East to South Africa to Northern Ireland, Americans are helping former adversaries turn from conflict to cooperation. We are supporting democracies and market economies, like Haiti and Mexico in our own region and others throughout the world. We are expanding trade. We are working for a Europe allied with the United States, but unified economically and politically for the first time since nation-states appeared on the European Continent. Just yesterday, Russia's decision to actively participate in NATO's Partnership For Peace helped to lay the groundwork for yet another important step in establishing a secure, stable, and unified European Continent for the next century.

Clearly there are powerful historical forces pulling us together: a worldwide thirst for freedom and democracy; a growing commitment to market economics; a technological revolution that moves information, ideas, money, and people around the globe at record speed. All these things are bringing us together and helping to make our future more secure.

But these same forces have a dark underside which can also lead to more insecurity. We understand now that the openness and freedom of society make us even more vulnerable to the organized forces of destruction, the forces of terror and organized crime and drug trafficking. The technological revolution that is bringing our world closer together can also bring more and more problems to our shores. The end of communism has opened the door to the spread of weapons of mass destruction and lifted the lid on age-old conflicts rooted in ethnic, racial, and religious hatreds. These forces can be all the more destructive today because they have access to modern technology.

Nowhere are the forces of disintegration more obvious today than in Bosnia. For the past 2 1/2 years, the United States has sought to contain and end the conflict, to help to preserve the Bosnian nation as a multistate entity, multiethnic entity, to keep faith with our NATO allies, and to relieve human suffering.

To these ends, we have led the NATO military responses to calls by the United Nations for assistance in the protection of its forces and safe areas for the people of Bosnia, led efforts to achieve a negotiated settlement, deployed peacekeeping troops to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to contain the conflict within the present borders of Bosnia, and conducted the longest humanitarian airlift to the people there in history.

Two weeks ago, the Bosnian Serbs unleashed 1,400 shells on the civilians of Sarajevo. The United Nations called this attack a return to medieval barbarism. They asked for a NATO air response, which we supported. Now we have joined our allies to develop a coordinated response to the Serbs' continued refusal to make peace and their illegal capturing of United Nations personnel as hostages.

We believe still that a strengthened United Nations operation is the best insurance against an even worse humanitarian disaster should they leave. We have a longstanding commitment to help our NATO allies, some of whom have troops in the U.N. operation in Bosnia, to take part in a NATO operation to assist them in a withdrawal if that should ever become necessary. And so, if necessary, and after consultation with Congress, I believe we should be prepared to assist NATO if it decides to meet a request from the United Nations troops for help in a withdrawal or a reconfiguration and a strengthening of its forces.

We have received no such request for any such assistance, and we have made no such decision. But in any event, we must know that we must continue to work for peace there. And I still believe that we have made the right decision in not committing our own troops to become embroiled in this conflict in Europe nor to join the United Nations operations.

I want to say to you, we have obligations to our NATO allies, and I do not believe we can leave them in the lurch. So I must carefully review any requests for an operation involving a temporary use of our ground forces. But we have made the right decision in what we have done and what we have not done in Bosnia.

I believe we must look at all of these problems and all these opportunities in new and different ways. For example, we see today that the clear boundaries between threats to our Nation's security from beyond our borders and the challenges to our security from within our borders are being blurred. One once was clearly the province of the armed services, the other clearly the province of local law enforcement. Today, we see people from overseas coming to our country for terrorist purposes, blurring what is our national security. We must see the threats for what they are and fashion our response based on their true nature, not just where they occur.

In these new and different times, we must pursue three priorities to enhance our security. First, we have to combat those who would destroy democratic societies, including ours, through terrorism, organized crime, and drug trafficking. Secondly, we have to reduce the threat of weapons of mass destruction, whether they're nuclear, chemical, or biological. Third, we have to provide our military, you and people like you, with the resources, training, and strategic direction necessary to protect the American people and our interests around the world.

The struggle against the forces of terror, organized crime, and drug trafficking is now uppermost on our minds because of what we have endured as a nation, the World Trade Center bombing, the terrible incident in Oklahoma City, and what we have seen elsewhere, the nerve gas attack in Tokyo, the slaughter of innocent civilians by those who would destroy the peace in the Middle East, the organized crime now plaguing the former Soviet Union—so much that one of the first requests we get in every one of those countries is "Send in the FBI; we need help"—the drug cartels in Latin America and Asia that threaten the open societies and the fragile democracies there. All these things we know can emerge from without our borders and from within our borders. Free and open societies are inherently more vulnerable to these kinds of forces. Therefore, we must remain vigilant, reduce our vulnerability, and constantly renew our efforts to defeat them.

We work closely with foreign governments. We share intelligence. We provide military support. We initiate anticorruption and money-laundering programs to stop drug trafficking at its source. We've opened an FBI office in Moscow, a training center in Hungary to help combat international organized crime. Over the past 2 years, we've waged a tough counterterrorism campaign, strengthening our laws, increasing manpower and training for the CIA and the FBI, imposing sanctions on states that sponsor terrorism.

Many of these efforts have paid off. We were able to arrest and quickly convict those responsible for the World Trade Center bombing, to stop another terrible planned attack in New York as well as a plan to blow up American civilian airliners over the Pacific, and help to bring to justice terrorists around the world.

In the aftermath of Oklahoma City, our top law enforcement officers told us they needed new tools to fight terrorism, and I proposed legislation to provide those tools: more than 1,000 new law enforcement personnel solely working on terrorism; a domestic antiterrorism center; tough new punishment for trafficking in stolen explosives, for attacking members of the Uniformed Services or Federal workers; the enabling of law enforcement officials to mark explosive materials so they can be more easily traced; the empowering of law enforcement officials with authority to move legal, and I emphasize legal, wiretaps when terrorists quickly move their bases of operation without having to go back for a new court order; and finally, in a very limited way, the authority to use the unique capacity of our military where chemical or biological weapons are involved here at home, just as we now can call on those capabilities to fight nuclear threats.

I'm sure every graduate of this Academy knows of the posse comitatus rule, the clear line that says members of the uniformed military will not be involved in domestic law enforcement. That is a good rule. We should honor that rule. The only narrow exception for it that I know of today is the ability of law enforcement in America to call upon the unique expertise of the military when there is a potential threat of a nuclear weapon in the hands of the wrong people. All we are asking for in the aftermath of the terrible incident in the Tokyo subway is the same access to the same expertise should chemical and biological weapons be involved.

The congressional leadership pledged its best efforts to put this bill on my desk by Memorial Day. But Memorial Day has come and gone, and only the Senate has taken the bill up. And even there, in my judgment, there are too many amendments that threaten too much delay.

Congress has a full agenda of important issues, including passing a responsible budget. But all this will take time. When it comes to terrorism, time is a luxury we don't have. Some are even now saying we should just go slow on this legislation. Well, Congress has a right to review this legislation to make sure the civil liberties of American citizens are not infringed, and I encourage them to do that. But they should not go slow. Terrorists do not go slow, my fellow Americans. Their agenda is death and destruction on their own timetable. And we need to make sure that we can do everything possible to stop them from succeeding.

Six weeks after Oklahoma City, months after the first antiterrorism legislation was sent by the White House to Congress, there is no further excuse for delay. Fighting terrorism is a big part of our national security today, and it will be well into the 21st century. And I ask Congress to act and act now.

Our obligations to fight these forces of terror is closely related to our efforts to reduce the threat of weapons of mass destruction. All of us, I'm sure, ached and wept with the people of Japan when we saw what a small vial of chemical gas could do when unleashed in the subway station. And we breathed a sigh of relief when the alert officers there prevented the two chemicals from uniting and forming poison which could have killed hundreds and hundreds of people just a few days after that. The breakup of the Soviet Union left nuclear material scattered throughout the Newly Independent States and increased the potential for the theft of those materials and for organized criminals to enter the nuclear smuggling business. As horrible as the tragedies in Oklahoma City and the World Trade Center were, imagine the destruction that could have resulted had there been a smallscale nuclear device exploded there.

The United States will retain as long as necessary an arsenal of nuclear forces to deter any future hostile action by any regime that has nuclear weapons. But I will also continue to pursue the most ambitious agenda to dismantle and fight the proliferation of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction since the dawn of the nuclear age.

This effort is succeeding, and we should support it. No Russian missiles are pointed at America. No American missiles are aimed at Russia. Because we put the START I treaty into force, Russia is helping us and joining us in dismantling thousands of nuclear weapons. Our patient, determined diplomacy convinced Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus to give up their weapons when the Soviet Union fell apart. We are cooperating with these nations and others to safeguard nuclear materials and stop their spread.

And just last month, we got the indefinite and unconditional extension of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which will benefit not only this generation of Americans but future generations as well by preventing scores of countries from developing and acquiring nuclear weapons. More than 170 nations have signed on to this treaty. They vow they will either never acquire nuclear weapons or, if they have them, that they won't help others obtain them, and they will pursue arms control and disarmament.

We have to now go even further. There is no excuse for the Senate to go slow on approving two other vital measures, the START II treaty and the Chemical Weapons Convention. START II will enable us to reduce by twothirds the number of strategic warheads deployed at the height of the cold war. The Chemical Weapons Convention requires the destruction of chemical weapon stockpiles around the world and provides severe penalties for those who sell materials to build these weapons to terrorists or to criminals. It would make a chemical terror, like the tragic attack in the Tokyo subway, much, much more difficult. Both START II and the Chemical Weapons Convention will make every American safer, and we need them now.

There is more to do. We are working to complete negotiations on a comprehensive test ban treaty, to implement the agreement we reached with North Korea to freeze and dismantle that country's nuclear program, to strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention. It is an ambitious agenda, but it is worthy of this moment, and it will make your future as officers in the United States Air Force, American citizens, and when you're parents and grandparents more secure.

Finally, let me say that none of this will work unless we also are faithful to our obligation to support a strong and adaptable military for the 21st century. The men and women of our Armed Forces remain the foundation, the fundamental foundation of our security. You put the steel into our diplomacy. You get the job done when all means short of force have been tried and failed.

We saw your strength on display in Haiti, where a brutal military regime agreed to step down peacefully only, and I emphasize only, when it learned that more than 60 C-130's and C-140's loaded with paratroopers were in the air and on the way. Now the Haitian people have a second chance to rebuild their nation.

We then saw your speed in the Persian Gulf, when Iraq massed its troops on the Kuwaiti border and threatened regional instability. I ordered our planes, ships, and troops into the Gulf. You got there in such a hurry that Iraq got out of the way in a hurry.

We saw your compassion in Rwanda, where you flew tons of supplies, medicines, and foods into a nation torn apart by violence and saved countless lives.

All over the world, you have met your responsibilities with skill and professionalism, keeping peace, making peace, saving lives, protecting American interests. In turn, your country has a responsibility to make sure you have the resources, the flexibility, the tools you need to do the job. We have sought to make good on that obligation by crafting a defense strategy for our time.

And I'd like to say here today that one of the principal architects of that strategy was our recently deceased former Defense Secretary, Les Aspin. During his many years in the Congress as head of the Armed Services Committee, as Secretary of Defense, and as head of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, he devoted a lifetime to this country's defense.

And we will miss him terribly. And we are very grateful for the legacy he left: a blueprint for reshaping our military to the demands of the 21st century, a blueprint that calls on us to make sure that any force reductions we began at the end of the cold war do not jeopardize our strength over the long run, that calls on us to provide you with the resources you need to meet the challenges of a world plagued by ancient conflicts and new instabilities.

All of you know here that after World War II a major drawdown left us at a major disadvantage when war broke out in Korea. And just 5 years after the post-Vietnam drawdown, in 1980, the Army Chief of Staff declared that we had a hollow Army, a view shared by most experts. We have been determined not to repeat those mistakes.

Even as we draw down troops, we know we have to be prepared to engage and prevail in two nearly simultaneous major regional conflicts. Some argued that this scenario was unrealistic and excessively demanding. Recent events have proved that they were wrong and shown that we are pursuing the right strategy and the right force levels for these times.

Last summer, just before the North Koreans finally agreed to dismantle their nuclear program, we were poised to send substantial air, naval, and ground reinforcements to defend South Korea. Just a few months later, we deployed tens of thousands of troops to the Gulf and placed thousands more on alert. And in between those crises, I gave the go-ahead to the 25,000 troops engaged in Operation Uphold Democracy in Haiti.

In Haiti, the operation was especially historic because it was the most fully integrated military plan ever carried out in our history. The four services worked together, drawing on each other's special abilities more than ever before. And for the first time, we were ready to launch Army infantry and an air assault from a Navy aircraft carrier. When we decided to send our troops in peacefully, we did it in hours, not days. That kind of innovation and the ability to do that is what your country owes you as you walk out of this stadium today as officers in the United States Air Force.

This then will be our common security mission, yours and mine and all Americans': to take on terrorism, organized crime, and drug trafficking; to reduce the nuclear threat and the threat of biological and chemical weapons; to keep our military flexible and strong. These must be the cornerstones of our program to build a safer America at a time when threats to our security have no respect for boundaries and when the boundaries between those threats are disappearing.

Abroad, as at home, we must measure the success of our efforts by one simple standard: Have we made the lives of the American people safer? Have we made the future for our children more secure?

Let me say to this class, I know that the rewards of serving on the front lines of our foreign policy may seem distant and uncertain at times. Thirty-four years ago, President Kennedy said, "When there is a visible enemy to fight, the tide of patriotism runs high. But when there is a long, slow struggle with no immediate visible foe, your choice will seem hard indeed." Your choice, your choice, ladies and gentlemen, to take on the problems and possibilities of this time, to engage the world, not to run from it, is the right choice.

As you have learned here at the Academy, it demands sacrifice. In the years ahead, you will be asked to travel a long way from home, to be away from your loved ones for long stretches of time, to face dangers we perhaps cannot yet even imagine. These are the burdens you have willingly agreed to bear for your country, its safety, and its long-term security.

Go forth, knowing that the American people support you, that they admire your dedication. They are grateful for your service. They are counting on you, the class of '95, to lead us into the 21st century, and they believe you truly do represent the best of America.

Good luck, and Godspeed.

NOTE: The President spoke at 11:13 a.m. at Falcon Stadium. In his remarks, he referred to Lt. Gen. Paul Stein, USAF, Superintendent, and Brig. Gen. John D. Hopper, Jr., USAF, Commandant of Cadets, U.S. Air Force Academy; Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman, USAF, Air Force Chief of Staff; and Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado.

William J. Clinton, Remarks at the United States Air Force Academy Commencement Ceremony in Colorado Springs, Colorado Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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