By MICHAEL HILL, Associated Press
WEST POINT, N.Y. (AP) — Vice President Joe Biden said Saturday that the United States can now focus on new global challenges after a long decade of war in an election-year commencement address to jubilant graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
"Winding down these longs wars has enabled us to replace and rebalance our foreign policy," Biden told the Army cadets and their families at the storied academy's football stadium.
Biden's speech echoed some of the themes of military success struck by President Barack Obama in his commencement address at the U.S. Air Force Academy last Wednesday. Biden, like Obama, said U.S. combat troops have returned home from Iraq, the conflict in Afghanistan is winding down and American commandos killed al-Qaida terrorist leader Osama bin Laden in May 2011.
"Those warriors sent a message to the world that if you harm America, we will follow you to the end of the earth," Biden said.
The academy speeches by Obama and Biden counter an assertion from Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney that the president has led from behind in world affairs. Biden said the United States will continue to take charge internationally and focus on Asia, particularly China, which he called "the most critical relationship to get right."
NATO allies this week affirmed that the war in Afghanistan will halt at the end of 2014. The final U.S. troops left Iraq at the end of last year.
The morning sun beating on the stadium was punishing, but the newly commissioned second lieutenants were ecstatic as they tossed their caps into the air. The new officers said they felt prepared to deal with the dangers of duty.
"I'm ready to sacrifice for those I love. I'm ready to go. Send me!" said 23-year-old TeJay Espe of Stanwood, Wash.
"I know this country has given me a lot and I want to give back, I'm willing to give my life, said J.C. Van't Land, 22, of Hull, Iowa.
Biden told the 972 graduates of the class of 2012 that they deserve special praise because they decided to pursue military service fully aware that they could be fighting a war after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"Your generation, the 9/11 generation, is more than worthy of the proud legacy that you will inherit today," Biden said.
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