ANNAPOLIS | President Obama on Friday promised the U.S. Naval Academy’s graduating class that he will not send them into combat unless absolutely necessary and will always make sure they are properly prepared and equipped, in an apparent swipe at the Bush administration and the Iraq war.
Capping a week in which national security disputes and controversy over his promise to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay engulfed his domestic agenda, Mr. Obama began the long Memorial Day weekend with an address to the 1,036 graduates who will be sent off to war as Navy and Marine officers.
The president made a vow to the graduates, seated on the artificial grass field at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Field under a bright sun and blue sky, as he sent them out to confront what he called “the ever-changing threats of an ever-changing world.”
“As long as I am your commander in chief, I will only send you into harm’s way when it is absolutely necessary, and with the strategy, the well-defined goals, the equipment and the support that you need to get the job done,” Mr. Obama said, to applause from the crowd of about 30,000 parents and friends of the graduates.
“This includes the job of bringing the Iraq war to a responsible end and pursuing a new comprehensive strategy to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda and its allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” he said.
A few in the crowd cheered at the mention of ending the Iraq war, and there was light applause for the president’s mention of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
One of the graduating naval officers was John S. “Jack” McCain IV, the son of Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, who himself graduated from the Naval Academy, as did his father and his grandfather, both four-star admirals.
“A great day for Jack! 4th generation graduating from the Naval Academy,” the senator wrote on his Twitter feed from the front row of the audience before the ceremony began. Mr. McCain’s own time at Annapolis and his subsequent military career were key themes of his presidential campaign, a race he lost to Mr. Obama last year.
Though Mr. Obama did single out a handful of graduating officers during his speech, he did not mention Jack McCain. A White House official who did not want to be identified said “the president didn’t mention the McCain family out of respect for their wishes.”
Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain shared a handshake, an embrace and a few words when the young McCain was called up to receive his diploma. Mr. Obama could be seen saying, “God bless you,” as Jack McCain turned to walk off the stage.
It was the third commencement speech this spring for Mr. Obama, but his first to one of the nation’s military academies.
He commended the graduates for having “embraced the virtues that we need most right now: self-discipline over self-interest, work over comfort, character over celebrity.”
The president also praised the Naval Academy for the success of the special operations’ snipers who last month killed three Somali pirates with long-range shots to rescue the captain of an American cargo ship off the coast of Africa.
“Here, on this day, at this institution, it must be said: The extraordinary precision and professionalism displayed that day was made possible, in no small measure, by the training, the discipline and the leadership skills that so many of those officers learned at the United States Naval Academy,” Mr. Obama said.
“They took their time and then they took their shot. And they brought that captain home.”
After speaking, the president greeted each of the graduating officers with a handshake and a smile, a process that took almost two hours.
Mr. Obama spoke to the graduates at the end of one of the toughest weeks of his four months in the White House. He has come under heavy criticism from both conservatives and liberals for his decision to close the Guantanamo Bay prison without a clear-cut plan on what to do with the 240 detainees currently at the facility in Cuba.
The president attempted to reclaim momentum on the issue Thursday with a major speech in Washington, but was faced with a rebuke from former Vice President Dick Cheney at a speech immediately following his remarks. Mr. Obama also has encountered resistance on the issue on Capitol Hill, even from top members of his own party.
Lawmakers are uncomfortable with the idea of bringing detainees to the U.S. mainland, where the potential for some to be released into the general population poses a significant political risk.
Mr. Obama made a reference to his Thursday remarks in the address to the academy graduates, arguing that “when America strays from our values, it not only undermines the rule of law, it alienates us from our allies, it energizes our adversaries and it endangers our national security and the lives of our troops.”
“So as Americans, we reject the false choice between our security and our ideals. We can and we must and we will protect both,” he said.
By far, the president’s biggest applause line came when he granted returning midshipmen an extra weekend pass next fall and absolution if they were currently on restriction for minor offenses.
“I did say ‘minor,’ ” Mr. Obama said, laughing.