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Obama Defends Syria Actions: 'I Look at Syria's Children and I See My Own'

President Obama delivers the commencement address to the Air Force Class of 2016 at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., on June 2, 2016. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

President Obama made a pitch for American engagement in the world during a commencement address at the Air Force Academy today that concluded with the crash of one of the flyover jets.

Obama called his two terms as commander in chief “the highest honor of my life to lead the greatest military in the history of the world.”

“Our standing in the world is higher and I see it in my travels from Havana to Berlin to Ho Chi Minh City, where huge crowds of Vietnamese lined the streets, some waving American flags,” he said. “So make no mistake, the United States is better positioned to lead in the 21st century than any other nation. And here’s another fact. Our military is by a mile the strongest in the world.”

He called military cuts “natural and necessary” after ground wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“As we navigate this complex world, America cannot shirk the mantle of leadership. We can’t be isolationists. It’s not possible in this globalized, interconnected world,” Obama argued. “In these uncertain times, it’s tempting, sometimes, to pull back, to try to wash our hands of conflicts that seem intractable, let other countries fend for themselves. But history teaches us, from Pearl Harbor to 9/11, that oceans alone cannot protect us. Hateful ideologies can spark terror, from Boston to San Bernardino.”

“In a global economy, it’s not possible to stop trading goods and services with other countries. Weak public health systems on the other side of the world allow diseases to develop that end up reaching our shores,” he added. “So, we cannot turn inward; we cannot give into isolationism. That’s a false comfort. Allowing problems to fester over there makes us less secure here.”

The president added that “one of the most effective ways to lead and work with others is through treaties that advance our interests.”

“After eight years, I have not gone to an international conference, summit, meeting where we were not the ones who made the agenda possible, even if we weren’t hosting it. We have more alliances with other countries than anybody else, and they’re the foundation of global stability and prosperity. On just about every issue, the world looks to us to set the agenda,” Obama continued.

“When there is a problem around the world, they do not call Beijing or Moscow. They call us. 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.”

Obama argued that “we need smart, steady, principled American leadership — and part of leading wisely is seeing threats clearly.”

“Remember Ebola? That was a serious threat, and we took it seriously. 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,'” he said. “The thing is, when we panic, we don’t make good decisions.”

“…There may be wars we cannot always stop right away or lives we cannot save, but we also need the idealism that sees the world as it ought to be, a commitment to the universal values of democracy and equality and human rights.”

Obama defended his non-enforcement of the red line on the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, declaring that “all of Syria’s declared chemical weapons were successfully removed.”

Chemical attacks and revelations about undeclared chemical agents have continued since the 2014 destruction of Bashar Assad’s declared stockpiles.

“As a father, I look at Syria’s children and I see my own. That’s why we’ve said the dictator Assad must go and why we support the moderate Syrian opposition. And it’s why America provides more humanitarian aid to the Syrian people than any other nation,” Obama said. “But suggestions for a 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. How will it alter the conflict? What comes next?”

“When we ask those questions, we prevent the kind of mission-creep that history teaches us to avoid. If Iran and Russia want to spill their blood and treasure trying to prop up their Syrian client and get sucked into a quagmire, that is their choice. As president of the United States, I’ve made a different choice. And the only real solution to the Syrian conflict is a political solution, including a transition away from Assad.”

After five years, the death toll in Syria is about half a million, with about 10 percent of those children.

After the Thunderbird performance at the graduation, one of the planes experience mechanical problems and crashed into a nearby field. The pilot parachuted to safety.

“Upon arrival at Peterson Air Force Base, the president visited briefly with the Thunderbird pilot whose aircraft crashed earlier today,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters. “The president thanked the pilot for his service to the country and expressed his relief that the pilot was not seriously injured. The president also thanked the first responders who acted quickly to tend to the pilot.”