Today, as we celebrate Presidents' Day, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor delivered a national security speech calling for “An America That Leads” at the Virginia Military Institute. Below are his remarks, as prepared for delivery:
“Good morning and thank you General Peay for that kind introduction.
“General, administrators, faculty and cadets, it is a great honor to be with you today. I can think of no better place than the Virginia Military Institute to discuss a way forward for an America that leads, strives for peace, yet is prepared for conflict.
“To the cadets here today, one day soon, our nation will rely on you as we’ve relied on graduates of VMI since your first class was admitted in 1839. We must do our best to bestow upon you a secure and stable world, where the security of our nation, the liberty of our allies, and the freedom of those yearning for it are protected.
“Today, we celebrate our nation's first Commander-in-Chief George Washington. Since Washington led our armed forces and this nation, America has relied upon a strong military to defend our homeland and our freedoms.
“America's military strength, global leadership combined with a benevolent purpose helped spread the promise of democracy to the oppressed, a message of hope to the destitute, and the blessings of security to the weak. In doing so, we have earned new allies, vanquished old foes, and further secured our own nation. But today, that formula that has served this nation and the world so well is very much in doubt.
“America’s friends worry we have lost our way, that we have lost the will to live up to our values or stand up to aggressors. They see a divided, inward-looking America that is focused on its weaknesses rather than its strengths, and they know this is an America that invites challenges and emboldens adversaries.
“Many Americans, and politicians from both parties, want to believe the tide of war has receded. As was the case in the wake of World War I, many want to believe the costly foreign interventions of recent years can simply be put behind us. That we can simply choose not to be involved.
“However, we mustn’t let ourselves be lulled into complacency again or forget the lessons of history. I recently led a Congressional delegation to the Nazi death camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau to commemorate the 69th anniversary of their liberation. As an American and a Jew, I was struck by a torrent of emotions filled with horror, pride, and regret.
“Horror at the scale of the camps, at the industrialization of human slaughter. These death camps are places of pure evil, cauldrons of hatred that even today shock the conscience at how brutal human beings can become when left unchecked.
“Pride in America’s role in liberating Europe from Nazism and ending the Holocaust. American GIs and our allies liberated concentration camps across the European continent and the tremendous sacrifices made by our Greatest Generation were essential to defeating Nazi Germany.
“And, standing there as the frigid wind swept through the eerily quiet ruins of the camp, I could not help but regret that American action in World War II came too late to save countless millions of innocent lives. Hitler’s rise and conquest of Europe did not come as a surprise. Nor were the Allied Powers ignorant of the Nazi death camps to which millions of innocents were being shipped like cattle bound for the slaughter.
“The free world chose not to act against Hitler’s aggression until it was too late. Americans, war weary and anxious after experiencing the horrors of World War I, largely ignored the conflict erupting on the Continent, and the prevailing sentiment was to avoid involvement in the burgeoning conflicts in Europe and Asia.
“This isolationist sentiment lasted years, until the bombing of Pearl Harbor woke the American people from their slumber. We must not repeat the same mistake by reducing our preparedness, accepting the notion that we are one of many or ceding global leadership to others.
“The world is still dangerous, and it is getting smaller as technological advances bring disparate conflicts closer and closer to our shores. The outcomes of these conflicts have real consequences for America’s security and prosperity. Now is not the time to ignore these looming challenges.
“American foreign policy should not be guided by hollow rhetoric, unwise or moveable timelines, and unenforced red lines. Instead, it should be driven by clear principles: protect the homeland, defend our allies, and advance freedom, democracy and human rights abroad, while maintaining a military superiority that cannot be matched.
“Human nature has not changed since World War II. Evil and hateful ideologies still exist in the world. And we run a terrible risk if we fail to recognize and confront such evil before it is too late.
“Perhaps this is most evident in Iran’s determined march to produce nuclear weapons. I can imagine few more destabilizing moments in world history than Iran on the threshold of being a nuclear power.
“Make no mistake: Iran is a brutal theocracy. Its leaders violently repress dissent at home and support conflict and chaos abroad. For years, our State Department has listed Iran as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. Many of our troops and innocent American civilians – to say nothing of Arabs and Jews – have lost their lives at the hands of Hizballah and other Iranian proxies.
“Some view Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s new President, as a moderate and a reformer. But Mr. Rouhani is in actuality far less powerful than Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ elite Qods Force. And he is insignificant next to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whom they call the Supreme Leader for a reason.
“Khamenei’s bid for regional supremacy has led Iran to support Bashar Assad’s war against the Syrian people, where hundreds of thousands have been slaughtered.
“If given the opportunity, Iran’s leaders would make good on their call to wipe Israel off the map, and armed with nuclear weapons would be a threat to all within range of their missiles, which someday soon may include our own shores.
“The international community must confront this growing threat. In truth, the international community will only act if it is encouraged to do so by an America that leads.
“Like all Americans, I hope to see Iran abandon its nuclear aspirations through peaceful negotiations, but hope is not a strategy. Among other shortcomings, the current interim agreement between the United States and Iran explicitly allows Iran to continue enriching uranium and improving its centrifuge designs, despite the U.N. Security Council Resolutions that call for Iran to suspend exactly these activities.
“If Iran is allowed to become a threshold nuclear state, there will be no stopping regional states like Saudi Arabia and Turkey from also pursuing the bomb, and it is hard to believe such an arms race will be confined to the Middle East. Decades of efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons will become meaningless if the nuclear barn door is kicked open by the world’s most active state sponsor of terrorism.
“The United States must remain firm. Already, the limited sanctions relief provided by the interim deal has undermined the perception of international pressure so critical to convincing the Iranians to change course. Not a week goes by without reports of foreign trade delegations heading to Tehran. Sanctions may technically remain in place, but the undeniable impression is that Iran is open for business.
“As we hold the line on firm demands that Iran come into compliance with the repeated demands of the U.N. Security Council, an America that Leads is an America that must work to restore the badly eroded international pressure on Tehran. We should lay the groundwork now for additional sanctions in the event Iran violates the terms of the interim agreement.
“While Iran’s nuclear program remains an urgent focus, we must not lose sight of the threat posed by Iran’s continued development of ballistic missiles – including with help from North Korea-- its support for terrorism, its efforts to foment instability in the region, and its brutal repression of its own population.
“Our diplomatic efforts to convince Iran to give up its nuclear designs and change its ways must be accompanied with a credible threat of the use of military force. Unfortunately, our actions in recent years have demonstrated otherwise, and have led to distrust among our allies and the strengthening of our adversaries.
“Syria is a big reason our allies do not trust us, and our adversaries do not fear us.
“Months into Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s brutal suppression of a nation-wide protest movement, momentum appeared to be with the protesters. President Obama – sensing perhaps that Assad’s fall was inevitable – called for the dictator to go.
“In doing so, the President violated Lyndon Johnson’s maxim that you ‘shouldn’t tell a man to go to Hell unless you’re prepared to send him there.’ President Obama’s declaration – in the eyes of the world, and especially of the Syrians – committed the United States to a policy of regime change, but the absence of a strategy to accomplish this objective has strengthened Assad and weakened our credibility.
“When Assad prepared to use chemical weapons against his own people, President Obama warned that doing so would cross a red line for which there would be serious consequences.
“And yet when credible reports surfaced that Assad had, in fact, used chemical weapons against his own people, President Obama referred action to the United Nations.
“And then in August, when Assad’s forces used chemical weapons so egregiously that YouTube videos of suffering victims showed up almost instantaneously on the internet, it appeared the U.S. could finally enforce the red line drawn by our president, inflict serious consequences on a brutal dictator aligned with Iran, and restore some of America’s tarnished credibility.
“And yet, having led our allies and adversaries in the Middle East to believe we would strike, America backed down, and leapt at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s concrete life preserver of a plan to have the United Nations get rid of Assad’s chemical weapons.
“Six months later, Assad remains in power, still has his chemical weapons, and looks unlikely to ever fully get rid of them.
“Of course, Assad’s chemical weapons are but a sideshow.
“Syria is not merely a humanitarian disaster, but a slow-motion strategic catastrophe that poses significant threats to America and some of its closest partners.
“It is not merely ‘someone else’s civil war,’ but a regional sectarian conflict that has become a vortex of jihad.
“Already, more foreign fighters have flocked to Syria than fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. These foreigners, including hundreds from Europe, many from the United States, and some from as far away as Indonesia and Australia, pose a particular risk. Radicalized and battle-hardened, these jihadists armed with Western passports may return home to continue to their fight.
“This month, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson both acknowledged that these radicalized foreign fighters pose a threat to the homeland.
“There are no risk-free options in Syria, nor will the resolution of this terrible conflict be easy. As our partners in the region have begged for more than a year, an America that leads is an America that must do more to coordinate an international effort to support the moderate opposition to bolster them in their fight against the forces of Assad, Iran, and Al Qaeda. We must lead in order to change the balance of power on the ground to make possible a negotiated political solution to this conflict.
“Such support will not guarantee that moderate rebels can defeat the extremists, but their fate – and ours – will almost certainly be bleak without it.
“Threatening to act in Syria only to shrink back from the edge not only undermined our allies inside Syria and throughout the Middle East, it badly shook our allies in Asia.
“South Korean and Japanese leaders rightfully question whether they can trust the United States to stand up to nuclear-armed North Korea if we cannot follow through on our threats against a much weaker Syria.
“North Korea has made considerable, virtually unimpeded progress in its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. Since 2009 it has unveiled a previously secret, industrial-sized uranium enrichment program, conducted multiple nuclear tests, test-fired multiple ballistic missiles, including ICBMs capable of reaching the United States, and it has conducted artillery and naval attacks against South Korean vessels and territory.
“Yet North Korea has faced almost no consequence for flouting the demands of the international community that it cease its nuclear weapons program, curtail its ballistic missile proliferation, and abide by the terms of the Armistice. It has also yet to pay any meaningful price for nearly a decade of illegal support to Syria’s nuclear program, including helping the Syrian regime build a covert nuclear reactor.
“Iran – a long-standing proliferation partner of North Korea – has undoubtedly learned a valuable lesson from watching America’s unwillingness to prevent North Korea’s emergence as a nuclear power. An America that leads is an America that must redouble our efforts to prevent a nuclear North Korea and stand by our ally South Korea.
“This includes bringing China along as a partner committed to restraining and reforming North Korea, increased international sanctions, expanded efforts to crack down on North Korea’s proliferation of missile and nuclear technology, and prominent joint military exercises with our regional allies.
“Above all, we must put an end to the pattern of North Korean aggression, followed by a request for dialogue, and then a request for economic relief by making clear that economic concessions require denuclearization.
“Our partners in Asia look to the United States to stand with them to promote international peace and security and to guarantee the freer markets and freer trade that have allowed Asia to experience such significant political and economic development.
“These allies have witnessed America’s retreat in the Middle East, and they are fearful that the U.S. will pull back in Asia as well, exposing previously secure free sea lanes of navigation to increasing territorial competition. As we have seen elsewhere, when America fails to lead, others are eager to fill the vacuum.
“China’s continued growth into an economic power poses tremendous opportunities for increased trade and global economic growth. But China’s neighbors are worried that economic strength of the People’s Republic, combined with its increasing military might, will embolden its leaders to behave more aggressively in the region.
“These neighbors, our allies, desire good relations with China, but they need U.S. leadership to encourage China to wield its new influence responsibly and in accordance with international law, to respect freedom of navigation and the territorial integrity of its neighbors.
“Initially encouraged by the so-called ‘pivot’ or ‘re-balance’ to Asia, our Asian partners are rightfully worried that the ‘re-balance’ means only that the region will receive a larger slice of a shrinking pie with respect to American attention, military presence, and diplomacy.
“We cannot carry the load for our partners, but an America that leads is an America that provides the guidance, security, and coordination necessary to keep the peace.
“That global leadership is not possible if America doesn’t invest in a modern, highly trained, well equipped, and more lethal military. We must invest in combating new threats, including in the field of cyber security, where state and non-state actors pose a risk to our secrets and critical infrastructure. And we cannot continue to blindly reduce defense spending, or we will find it increasingly difficult to project adequate military power in any theater, be it the Middle East, Latin America or Asia.
“Our ability to promote peace and stability must be accompanied by a willingness to lead and engage on matters of trade. The President is right to seek a new free trade agreement in Asia, as free markets and free trade have helped not only to generate economic growth on both sides of the Pacific but also to give nations an incentive to play by the rules of international trade.
“This has been the case in Latin America, where trade agreements have served us well, strengthening alliances with and promoting economic growth in countries like Colombia. Expanding free trade and free markets and speaking out against socialistic populist economic policies that lead to economic and social ruin is perhaps our best course of action to produce meaningful stability in Latin and South America.
“An America that leads in our own hemisphere is an America that must restore the role of important multilateral organizations, such as the Organization of American States, in promoting security, free markets, and political reform. Socialist leaders in the Americas are taking advantage of U.S. disengagement to organize themselves against our interests and to undermine their neighbors who are committed to democracy, the rule of law and free markets.
“Look no further than Russia, a traditional ally to Leftist regimes in Latin America, to see the consequences of disengagement.
“When President Obama came to office, he seemed intent on engaging an old adversary and extended a hand to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Secretary Clinton famously pressed a ‘reset button’ to symbolize a new start to a more harmonious relationship with Russia.
“Well, despite the idyllic pictures from the Olympic coverage at Sochi, Putin is still living in the Cold War. He has demonstrated that he’s neither interested in better relations with the United States nor is he fearful of poking America in the eye.
“Just in the last year, Putin has blocked U.N. Security Council Resolutions, provided lethal support to Bashar Assad’s Syria, threatened the independence of Russia’s neighbors in Eastern Europe and suppressed dissent at home. He’s even rolled out the red carpet for a traitor- Edward Snowden - whose theft of incredibly sensitive classified information has done incredible damage to America’s security.
“We should acknowledge the truth about Putin and his government. An America that leads must have policies based on a clear understanding that Russia behaves like an adversary, seeking every opportunity to undermine our interests and push its advantage. We should work with Russia when doing so is in our interest, but we should also speak clearly against Russia’s aggression abroad and its repression at home.
“Recent reports of Russia’s violations of the INF treaty, and the apparent lack of a response from the United States, raise profound concerns about Russia’s trustworthiness as an arms control partner, either with respect to new bilateral reduction treaties such as New START or multilateral negotiations with Iran. Russia’s behavior, and the growing threat posed by proliferation, are a stark reminder that the United States must maintain a credible nuclear deterrent capability, which has been paramount in providing security to allies around the world.
“We could learn a lot from President Ronald Reagan, who understood the value of an America that leads. Reagan’s clarity of vision and strength of purpose in calling for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” inspired millions behind the Iron Curtain. He made clear to Soviet leaders that America would not be pushed around.
“Reagan’s clarity of purpose and commitment to rebuilding America’s strength compelled Soviet leaders to make concessions on ground-breaking arms control agreements which paved the way to end the Cold War. An America that leads must regain its clarity of purpose and commitment to prevail for freedom's sake.
“Citizens fighting for freedom in their own countries look to us for this strength of purpose. When our voice is absent, we can lose the chance to help moderates achieve results. This is the case in the cold winter that followed the popular uprisings against authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, known as the Arab Spring.
“Absent a strategy to shape the outcome of these historical political transitions, the U.S. failed to effectively support moderate Arabs who sought to emulate the U.S. in building pluralistic democracies.
“As a result, moderate reformers have floundered and extremists have filled the vacuum. In the wake of such promise, we now see the Talibanization of the Middle East.
“Just as we failed to capitalize on the promise of the Arab Spring, we failed to combat the dangerous growth of instability and extremism in Libya before it was too late.
“Far from demonstrating the success of the Obama Administration’s ‘light footprint’ approach, Libya today barely exists as a state. It is a vast, ungoverned stretch of desert, awash in weapons, where terrorists, gangs, and militiamen compete for local dominance.
“This did not happen overnight. Rather than acknowledge and confront the growing lawlessness and instability that sprung from the collapse of the Qaddafi regime, Administration officials continued publicly to present Libya as a success.
“As reports of violent attacks against western interests in Libya – including in the city of Benghazi – became common, we know the State Department ignored them and chose neither to increase security at its diplomatic facilities nor to change its broader Libya policy.
“The catastrophic result of inaction is obvious. Four Americans, including the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, are dead, victims of a terrorist attack on a U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi on September 11, 2012.
“Since that deadly day no one has paid a price for this outrageous attack, no one has been brought to justice. What message does it send to the terrorists that an American Ambassador can be killed with apparent impunity?
“The situation in Libya has only deteriorated. Libya today has become a safe haven from which terrorists threaten stability throughout the entire region. Libyan weapons have shown up throughout the region, including in the Sinai, where terrorists have attacked Egypt, a multi-national observer force, and Israel.
“Libya cannot be allowed to become an Afghanistan on the Mediterranean. An America that leads should seek to bolster the capabilities of the Libyan security forces and, as necessary, be willing to engage in and support counter-terrorism efforts.
“Next door to Libya, Tunisia is perhaps the democratic transition in the Arab world most likely to succeed. However, it faces significant challenges compounded by America’s disengagement from the region.
“Recent political compromises between the major secular and Islamist parties offer hope that Tunisia’s democracy will succeed. America can help the Tunisians seize the opportunity provided by this newfound compromise.
“We can and should work with international partners to provide economic and development assistance. America should continue to provide technical assistance in building democratic institutions. And we must confront the broader terrorist threats that are radicalizing politics and weakening moderate leaders throughout the region.
“An America that leads must stand on the side of the moderates as they struggle to build pluralistic democratic societies.
“Democracy is not just about elections, and it doesn’t happen overnight. If democracy is to take root in the Middle East, it will require significant protections for individual rights, religious minorities and women - protections that will not materialize if the region lacks a partner to help guide the way.
“For those who think the events in the region do not impact our security at home, let's think again. Recall that in the 1990s, when the Taliban took control of Afghanistan after a bitter civil war, we consoled ourselves that Afghanistan was far away, that it was simply ‘someone else’s civil war.’
“Our blindness to the emergence of a terrorist state in Afghanistan paved the way for the attacks of September 11, 2001. Too many brave young men and women who once stood where you stand today have since made the ultimate sacrifice in the War on Terrorism.
“After many years and many missteps, the plain truth is that we still have work to do in Afghanistan. It would be a terrible mistake for the U.S. to make the same mistake we made in Iraq. Our hasty and total withdrawal squandered the hard-fought gains won by the military at such great cost.
“Afghan soldiers who have fought side-by-side with American soldiers worry the Taliban and other enemies will relish a full-scale American retreat. One Afghan officer warned that: ‘If the Americans leave, Afghanistan will be a lone sheep, left in the desert for the wolves to eat.’
“In Iraq today, Iran and Al Qaeda are ascendant, and violence has reached levels not seen since the peak of the insurgency. To allow the same thing to happen in Afghanistan would be to invite strategic defeat for the United States.
“George Marshall’s America did not abandon Europe to Soviet totalitarianism. Ronald Reagan’s America, though weary of a forty-year struggle against Communism, did not give in to the temptation to call it a day. Our generation’s America cannot abandon our allies to the wolves. Today, we must recapture the spirit and commitment of an America that leads.
“The inconvenient truth is policies of retreat and retrenchment make conflict more likely. Ignoring the growing danger of radical Islamic terrorism or treating it as a law enforcement problem has not made the threat any less real.
“A failure to acknowledge the continuing threat posed by these extremist groups emboldens the terrorists and leaves America vulnerable. Osama bin Laden may be dead, but the threat posed by radical Islamic terrorists has not diminished.
“Al Qaeda, its affiliates, and similar extremist groups have established an array of camps, safe havens, and financing networks that would make Bin Laden proud. Once confined to the remote wastelands of Sudan and the mountains of Afghanistan, radical Islamic terrorists are on the offensive from the western reaches of Africa to the tribal areas of Pakistan.
“Indeed, some of these groups, from Yemen to Libya, seek to attack American interests and even the homeland.
“The tide of war is not receding, it is flowing.
“An America that leads must have a renewed determination to wage the battle for moderation over extremism. The effort must include a strategy to shape the outcome of the broader political transformations under way in the Middle East.
“We must renew partnerships with long-time allies who feel abandoned. And we must take aggressive action against terrorist leaders.
“We must help build partner-capacity in the Middle East and North Africa, training and equipping security forces in other countries so they can be more reliable partners in providing both for their own security and in stabilizing their troubled region.
“The President and leaders of Congress must also be honest with the American people that all of these efforts cannot be done on the cheap, and they cannot be accomplished without risks.
“This must be a part of a renewed effort to ensure each defense dollar is well spent and that we are ready for threats of the future.
“As President Obama himself has said: ‘Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later.’ These words must actually inform our strategy.
“Our soldiers who carry out these missions are our greatest strength, and they’ve proven it by living up to a maxim I know you’re quite familiar with: ‘In Peace a Glorious Asset, In War a Tower of Strength.’
“As a member of the House of Representatives, I have the great privilege of meeting many of our brave military men and women, but I also meet with families of the fallen. It is an extremely humbling experience. Only they truly know the feeling of a folded flag and the emotions that come with a loved one giving the ultimate sacrifice.
“Let me end with a story.
“A few months ago I was invited to attend a ceremony in which American Legion Post 186 in Midlothian, was renamed for Major Charles A. Ransom, an Air Force officer killed in Afghanistan.
“Listening to his family and friends honor him at the ceremony, it was clear that Major Ransom was born a natural leader. At Midlothian High School he was a captain of both the football and baseball teams and he excelled in the classroom as an honor student. In the Air Force, he always put others before himself and displayed a great love for his country. He was a man who lived his life ‘By Wisdom and Courage.’
“I was extremely honored to be there that day and to learn about a man of great character and strength. I was not the least bit surprised when I found out that Major Charles Ransom was a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute.
“Going forward, we must remember that Americans like Major Ransom, and others who came before us, sacrificed and gave so much to make America the exceptional country and world leader we are today. We must remember that the international community needs an America that leads in the face of rising threats.
“We honor Major Ransom, and tomorrow’s servicemen and women by having a foreign policy rooted in American strength and humility, with clear purpose and unwavering certainty. We must never let our allies or enemies doubt our commitment to these principles.
“I strongly believe that if we champion the values this country was founded on and we embrace our role as a world leader, America won’t just be a beacon of hope and freedom for the next 100 years, but for centuries to come.
“Thank you and God Bless you all.”