ANNAPOLIS - Closing excess military bases is a difficult but necessary step toward modernizing the military, President Bush told graduating midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy, as he urged them to be "champions of change" in a rapidly transforming fighting force.
Bush used part of his commencement speech - in which he addressed the last Naval Academy class inducted before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks - to defend the recommendations of a commission that called for closing 33 major bases and restructuring 29 others.
The military services believe "we have more bases than we need," Bush said in his first public comments about the base closures since the commission made its report this month. "Supporting these facilities wastes billions of taxpayers' dollars - money that can be better spent on giving you the tools to fight terrorists and confront 21st-century threats."
The proposed closings are bitterly opposed by lawmakers, including many Republicans, whose constituents would be affected. While creating some 6,600 jobs in Maryland, the plan would mean cutting nearly 30,000 nationwide, saving $48 billion.
Bush said he knows "how hard base closings can be on local communities," adding that affected areas would get help with economic development and job training. The restructuring "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," he added.
Sounding the swaggering tones he often uses to discuss the war in Iraq, Bush charged the graduates "to take on two difficult missions at once," defeating terrorism and modernizing the military to guard against new threats.
"In our time, terrible dangers can arise on a short moment anywhere in the world, and we must be prepared to oppose these dangers everywhere in the world," he said.
Four years ago, Bush told graduates here they were joining a military that was "forward deployed" throughout the world, including in the Persian Gulf and the airspace above southern Iraq, as "an insurance policy in a world of change and challenge." Yesterday, in a 30-minute address, he spoke to them of serving in a "global war" against "brutal, determined enemies."
"When I spoke to the class of 2001, none of us imagined that a few months later we would suffer a devastating surprise attack on our homeland, or that our nation would be plunged into a global war unlike any we had known before," said Bush, who spoke at the Naval Academy as part of the tradition of presidents rotating among the commencements of the four military academies.
America's adversaries "will not be stopped by negotiations, or concessions, or appeals to reason. In this war, there is only one option - and that is victory," Bush said.
On a day of exuberance for midshipmen and their families, Bush strove to capture the spirit of duty and courage he said motivated classes that had come before, whose members were now fighting in Iraq or serving in Afghanistan. Singling out several by name, Bush told their stories in his own words, and with theirs, quoting some of their reflections about serving overseas.
Graduating midshipmen in May 2001 "could not have known that their strength and character would be tested so soon," Bush said. "Across the world, our military is standing directly between the American people and the worst dangers in the world, and Americans are grateful to have such brave defenders."
As he acknowledged the difficulties that lay before many of them, Bush also brought the midshipmen his customary upbeat message about the war in Iraq, racked in recent days by a violent insurgency. Attacks against U.S. forces and Iraqis have intensified this week in anticipation of a joint U.S.-Iraqi offensive called "Operation Lightning."
"We are winning the war on terror," Bush said. "We have put the enemy on the run."
Bush spoke to an audience of more than 30,000 - including 976 graduates - seated on a sun-drenched field in the center of the Navy-Marine Corps Stadium, the crisp white and gold buttons of their uniforms gleaming under a virtually cloudless sky.
A volley of cannons sounded and six Navy F/A-18 Hornets, the Blue Angels from Pensacola, Fla., roared over the stadium to pay tribute to the graduates.
Navy Secretary Gordon R. England, who introduced the president, recalled Bush's commencement address of four years before: "Same occasion, same place, but a vastly different world," said England, Bush's nominee to be deputy secretary of defense.
Bush, whose administration pegged military transformation early on as a top goal for the Pentagon, argued that the strategy - based on using new technology and finding better ways to respond to modern security challenges - is already paying dividends in its goal of creating a "faster, lighter, more agile and more lethal" fighting force.