Foreign Policy Blogs

GailForce: Thoughts On President Obama’s Speeches on Inauguration Day



I first became fully politically aware around the age of 10. Since that time there have been three speeches that resonated with me, meaning I felt the speakers were expressing their true beliefs as opposed to simply spouting political rhetoric. The first was President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration address. The second was Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The third was his “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top” speech, and the fourth was President Obama’s second inauguration speech.

The two speeches by Dr. King reinforced what my parents had drilled into my brother and me from an early age, and that was America was a country where dreams are for everyone. President Kennedy’s speech spurred on an interest in world affairs I’d begun to develop since the age of five when I decided I wanted to by a Naval Intelligence Officer after seeing the movie “Wing and a Prayer” starring Don Ameche.

In 1960, we were in the midst of the Cold War. It was an atmosphere so tense that in school we periodically participated in drills on what to do in case of an atomic bomb strike. The teachers would have us huddle under our desks. In spite of the ongoing threat of a nuclear holocaust, President Kennedy’s talk gave me the impression that it might be possible to end the Cold War through negotiation, but if that failed we would not hesitate to go to war. If that happened we would prevail. The parts of his talk that most grabbed me were:

“So let us begin anew–remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.
Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.”

“In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe.

Now the trumpet summons us again–not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need–not as a call to battle, though embattled we are– but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, “rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation”–a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.”

“My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”

President Kennedy would later follow his talk with a defense strategy he called Flexible Response. My understanding of the policy was he would structure our military to be able to respond to a variety of threats across the entire warfare spectrum. Of particular note was his concern over unconventional warfare. As stated on the JFK Library web page:

“President John F. Kennedy was visionary in his efforts to increase the capability of the United States Department of Defense in the conduct of Counter Insurgency and Unconventional Warfare. He recognized the unique capabilities and value of US Army Special Forces…in the struggle against despotic insurgency, and ensured their predominance in his global initiatives for freedom.”

President Obama’s talk stated some of the same themes; particularly when he stated:

“We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war. Our brave men and women in uniform, tempered by the flames of battle, are unmatched in skill and courage. Our citizens, seared by the memory of those we have lost, know too well the price that is paid for liberty. The knowledge of their sacrifice will keep us forever vigilant against those who would do us harm. But we are also heirs to those who won the peace and not just the war; who turned sworn enemies into the surest of friends — and we must carry those lessons into this time as well.

We will defend our people and uphold our values through strength of arms and rule of law. We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully –- not because we are naïve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.

America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe. And we will renew those institutions that extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad, for no one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation. We will support democracy from Asia to Africa, from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom. And we must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice –- not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes: tolerance and opportunity, human dignity and justice.”

As mentioned, I was impressed and felt he updated and reiterated some of our country’s founding core values; however, I was disappointed he did not say more about our security threats. First off, as the al-Qaeda related incident in Algeria this past weekend has shown terrorism is still a major threat. Ending operations in Afghanistan and Iraq does not end the war with al-Qaeda. Speaking at the Wilson Center last year, John Brennan, the President’s Senior Adviser on Counter Terrorism and his nominee for the next CIA Director stated:

“…the dangerous threat from al-Qaida has not disappeared… In north and west Africa, another al-Qaida affiliate, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, continues its efforts to destabilize regional governments and engages in kidnapping of Western citizens for ransom activities designed to fund its terrorist agenda.”

His comments are particularly relevant considering the recent terrorist attack in Algeria and ongoing French military operations against al-Qaida affiliates in Mali. The U.S. is assisting the French with logistic and intelligence support. Terrorism is not the only threat; there is cyber, Iran, North Korea, and China’s activities in the East and South China Seas.

Shortly after the President’s address, ABC news correspondent, Martha Raddatz interviewed outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. Panetta stated:

“Our willingness and ability to help other countries like France be able to go after AQIM (al Qaeda in the Maghreb). I think is the kind of model that you’re going to see in the future.”

At the Commander-in-Chief Ball, when speaking directly to troops in Afghanistan joining the function via video conference, the president stated:

“We’re going to make sure that you’ve got the equipment, the strategy, the mission that allows you to succeed and keep our country safe.”

How this will play out with our forces and defense strategies remains to be seen. No one can predict accurately when and where a war or crisis will break out. The challenge for defense planners is planning for the unknowable. I personally believe the biggest threat to our national security is our debt crisis. Senior Navy and Air Force leaders have recently complained the capabilities of our forces are declining. The Secretary of the Air Force recently stated:

“While the Air Force has met the demands of a high operational tempo in support of these and other operations, this has inevitably taken a toll on our weapon systems and people, putting a strain on the overall readiness of the force. We have seen a steady decline in unit readiness since 2003.”

A recent 15 January article in AOL Defense stated:

“Navy crews don’t have enough sailors, training, or spare parts to keep up with operational demands, the Commander of Naval Surface Forces said bluntly this afternoon. The service needs to make better use of smaller budgets by standardizing equipment and adopting new training simulations, Vice Adm. Tom Copeman said, but even that’s not enough: Ultimately, he said, the Navy must get smaller to stay ready.”

Think I’ll end here. As always, my views are my own.



Gail Harris
Gail Harris

Gail Harris’ 28 year career in intelligence included hands-on leadership during every major conflict from the Cold War to El Salvador to Desert Storm to Kosovo and at the forefront of one of the Department of Defense’s newest challenges, Cyber Warfare. A Senior Fellow for The Truman National Security Project, her memoir, A Woman’s War, published by Scarecrow Press is available on