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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - President Obama sent 1,000 Air Force Academy cadets into active duty Wednesday by laying out his vision for a postwar America in which the United States leads beyond the battlefield and by defiantly challenging his critics’ notion of waning American influence.

In a commencement address to the cadets, he hailed a milestone moment as the country winds down its military involvement in the two wars that have defined the generation that has come of age since Sept. 11, 2001.

The Class of 2012 is the first in nearly a decade, Obama told them, that is entering active service with no American troops fighting in Iraq, and the first that can envision an end to the Afghanistan war.

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“For a decade, we have labored under the dark cloud of war. Now, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon,’’ the president said, speaking on a stage in the middle of the academy’s football field with the cadets, dressed in blue and white uniforms, seated in rows before him. “The end of these wars will shape your service, and it will make our military stronger.’’

Obama’s appearance came two days after a NATO summit in Chicago in which the allied nations agreed to a framework to wind down the Afghanistan war by 2014. During the past half-year, Obama has touted the end of the Iraq war and the drawdown in Afghanistan as centerpieces of his foreign policy record as he makes a case for reelection, reminding the public that he had made good on his campaign promise to end the Iraq conflict.

The Obama campaign has targeted military families as a source of potential votes in battleground states, hoping to undercut a traditionally strong voting bloc for Republicans. Vice President Joe Biden is scheduled to speak at the West Point graduation ceremony Saturday.

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The president used much of his speech to declare that US influence has not waned. He said, “the United States is leading once more. From Europe to Asia, our alliances are stronger than ever.’’

President Obama posed with an unidentified cadet during the Air Force Academy’s graduation ceremony Wednesday.
President Obama posed with an unidentified cadet during the Air Force Academy’s graduation ceremony Wednesday.David Zalubowski/Associated Press

He pointed to the partnership with Japan after the quake and tsunami last year and his administration’s approach to aid Libyan rebels in overthrowing the regime of Moammar Khadafy.

The argument was aimed at sharp criticism from presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who has attacked Obama for being too soft on Iran. Republicans also have accused the president of responding too slowly to the prodemocracy movements challenging longstanding autocracies in the Middle East and North Africa and failing to act decisively to end President Bashar Assad’s crackdown on dissent in Syria.

“As we’ve done the work of ending these wars, we’ve laid the foundation for a new era of American leadership,’’ Obama said. “Let’s start by putting aside the tired notion that says our influence has waned, that America is in decline.’’

To those who have questioned whether he subscribes to the notion of American exceptionalism, the president pointedly used those very words.

“Never bet against the United States,’’ he said, adding that “the United States has been, and will always be, the one indispensable nation in world affairs. This is one of the many examples of why America is exceptional.’’

The speech kicked off a two-day trip in which will include four campaign fund-raisers, a campaign event in Iowa, and an event designed to push Congress to back a clean energy tax credit.

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Obama won Colorado in 2008 after accepting the nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.