Marking end of Iraq war, Obama defends foreign policy record

President Barack Obama speaks to troops, service-members and military families at the 1st Aviation Support Battalion Hangar at Fort Bliss Friday, Aug. 31, 2012, in El Paso, Texas. AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez

President Barack Obama speaks to troops, service-members and military families at the 1st Aviation Support Battalion Hangar at Fort Bliss Friday, Aug. 31, 2012, in El Paso, Texas.
AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez
(CBS News) FORT BLISS, Texas -- In an official trip marking the two year anniversary of the end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq, President Obama on Sunday defended his foreign policy record, making an apparent response to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's Thursday night remarks at the Republican Convention.

"If you hear anyone trying to say that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, don't you believe it," said Mr. Obama, in a speech to some 5,000 soldiers in camouflage fatigues.

"Here's the truth," he said. "Our alliances have never been stronger. We're leading on behalf of freedom, including standing with the people of Libya that are finally free from Muammar Qaddafi."

Troops signaled their approval with grunts of "Hooah!"

In an aircraft hangar at this sprawling military base, Mr. Obama said "around the world, there's a new attitude toward America, new confidence in our leadership."

He added that when people are asked which country they admire the most, "one nation always comes out on top: the United States of America."

Mr. Obama didn't mention Romney or his convention by name, and according to White House spokesman Jay Carney, he did not watch Romney speech.

"He did not have an opportunity to watch any of the convention coverage last night," Carney told reporters aboard Air Force One on the flight to this sprawling military base.

In his Thursday night remarks, Romney blasted the president's foreign policy record and accused him of throwing Iran "under the bus."

Carney said that Mr. Obama "tends to consume his news the old-fashioned way" -- by reading newspapers. But he added that Mr. Obama was "certainly aware...in general terms" what Romney said.

The president also used his speech to emphasize that he delivered on his promise to end the war in Iraq. He said 150,000 U.S. troops were pulled out and the last of them came home last December, including the 4th Brigade Combat Team from based at Fort Bliss.

"You left Iraq with honor," said the president, "your mission complete, your heads held high."

He said America honors the memory of the nearly 4,500 U.S. troops who lost their lives in the war in Iraq -- including 198 "fallen heroes" from Bliss. "We salute all who served there."

Mr. Obama noted that some in his audience had recently returned from duty in Afghanistan, and still others were to be deployed there later in the year,

"I've got to tell you the truth," he said of the situation in Afghanistan, "this is still a very tough fight."

He said the transition to Afghan forces taking the lead for security in their country was underway and that more than 30,000 troops will have come home by next month.

But he reaffirmed his determination to end the war in Afghanistan "responsibly," saying that in 2014, "the transition will be complete."

Even as the war ends, Mr. Obama said, "we will stay vigilant so Afghanistan is never again a source for attacks against America."

Reflecting on his role as commander-in-chief, a position he hopes to hold for another four years, the president said that "in a world of serious threats," he'll never hesitate to use force to defend the U.S. or its interests.

But he promised the troops, "I will only send you into harm's way when it is absolutely necessary. And when we do, we will give you the equipment and the clear mission and the smart strategy and the support back home that you need to get the job done. We owe you that."

Though his visit to Fort Bliss was not a campaign event, Mr. Obama still used his speech for some political outreach to military personnel, their families and veterans.

He announced signing an executive order earlier in the day order to provide better access to mental health care for military personnel, their families and veterans.

He also spoke of the first lady's efforts to generate more civilian support for military families. And he mentioned new programs to help military personnel leaving the service to find "jobs worthy of your incredible talents."

He called on Congress to enact his Veterans Job Corps program. He also said Congress needs to come to terms on a deficit reduction plan to avoid a trillion dollars in across-the-board budget cuts that would include severe reductions in defense appropriations.

"We need to be there for you," he told the troops, "just like you were there for us -- not just this year or next, but for all the years to come."

In some key states, military votes are part of the formula for victory, though Texas is not a state the Obama Campaign expects its candidate to win.

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    Mark Knoller is a CBS News White House correspondent.

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