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Bush tells naval grads of post-9/11 needs

Seeking to inspire future leaders of a U.S. military being transformed to fit an age of terror, President Bush on Friday addressed the graduating class at the Naval Academy.
President Bush congratulates a graduate at the Naval Academy commencement ceremony Friday.
President Bush congratulates a graduate at the Naval Academy commencement ceremony Friday.Msnbc Tv
/ Source: The Associated Press

Downsizing military bases is a painful but crucial step in the process of transforming the U.S. military into the kind of fighting force especially suited for this age of terror, President Bush told Naval Academy graduates Friday.

“We have more bases than we need,” Bush said in a commencement address to the academy’s Class of 2005. “Supporting these facilities wastes billions of taxpayer dollars — money that can be better spent on giving you the tools to fight terrorists and confront 21st-century threats.”

The graduation ceremonies got under way with 21 cannon blasts and a fast and low flyover by the Blue Angels, the Navy’s precision jet team. Six F/A-18 Hornets streaked in formation above the Navy-Marine Corps Stadium packed with thousands of cheering graduates, relatives and faculty.

Before he spoke, ebullient midshipmen got several rousing rounds of “the wave” going around the stadium at this prestigious academy on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay.

Bush: Need to transform
When Bush last spoke at a Naval Academy commencement, it was four months before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and his focus was the top-to-bottom reshaping of the military into a faster, lighter, more flexible and more high-tech, but not necessarily larger, force.

That transformation is even more necessary now, Bush said, because of the attacks, and the two wars — in Afghanistan and Iraq — launched since. Technology, a massive redeployment plan and next-generation weapons are key to the transformation, he said.

“In this era of surprise, we cannot know for certain who might attack us or where or when,” he said. “But we can anticipate how we might be attacked and we can transform our capabilities to defend our citizens and deliver justice to our enemies.”

He added: “In this war, there is only one option and that is victory.”

Bush also spoke for the first time publicly about how the process of closing bases fits into that larger vision, despite the fears in many military communities that he said he well understood.

“I know firsthand how hard base closings can be on local communities,” said the former Texas governor who saw facilities shut down in his state.

He promised an “impartial and fair” process as a congressionally chartered commission reviews the Pentagon’s sweeping proposal for closing or downsizing dozens of military bases large and small. The first round of base closings in a decade seeks to save $48.8 billion over 20 years by eliminating redundancy, streamlining services across the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, shutting down bases deemed inefficient and promoting cooperation among the four branches.

The panel will spend the next few months deciding whether to change the proposal before sending it to Bush and Congress this fall.

“It will result in a military that is more efficient and better prepared so you can better protect the American people against the dangers of this new century,” Bush said.

Thanks and jokes
Bush, maintaining his tradition of rotating between the service academies for commencement ceremonies, also sought to inspire the military’s future leaders.

Before the 976 graduates hurled their starched white hats into the blue sky and left the academy for their new status as military officers, Bush offered thanks for the many he addressed on the same field four years ago — people who now are serving in difficult military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. He recounted the brave deeds of several by name, and one whose name he said he could not reveal.

“Americans are grateful to have such brave defenders,” Bush said. “They are serving our nation with valor and distinction and soon you’ll join them.”

“You will make America proud,” he added.

The president softened up the crowd with a few jokes — some at his expense.

“You threw pennies at Tecumseh, the god of 2.0. I knew him pretty well when I was in school,” Bush joked, recalling his own academic mediocrity at Yale University.

Curfew breakers absolved
He also brought what he said was his graduation gift to the class, a traditional offering at this event: absolution for all those on restriction for missing curfew or breaking other rules of conduct. That got a big cheer.

It was Bush’s second and final commencement speech of 2005. Last Saturday, he spoke to the Calvin College graduating class in Grand Rapids, Mich.

After the graduation, Bush was traveling by helicopter to the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland for the weekend. He is scheduled to return to Washington for Memorial Day events on Monday.