President Barack Obama gave an impassioned speech to troops at
MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa on Tuesday, defending his administration’s counterterrorism and national-security strategy in the final planned foreign-policy speech of his presidency.
Broadly, Obama argued that he saved American lives by not sending them into harm’s way without a clear strategy and achievable goal — and that he did it while remaining within the bounds of his presidential power.
He attempted to protect a foreign-policy legacy that came under consistent fire from President-elect Donald Trump on the campaign trail, touting what he said were successes against terror groups.
“On January 20, I will become the first President of the United States to serve two full terms during a time of war,” Obama said, referring to the global war on terror that he inherited from President George W. Bush. “By any measure, core Al Qaeda — the organisation that hit us on 9/11 — is a shadow of its former self.”
Obama outlined how, over the past eight years, the US has “built a counterterrorism capability that can sustain pressure against any terrorist network” by consolidating partnerships with foreign allies, utilising drones and airstrikes to target terrorist safe havens, and resisting the urge to “push all of the burden onto American ground troops.”
Delivering the speech at MacDill, the home to US Central Command and Special Operations Command, was appropriate given Obama’s heavy reliance on a limited number of US Special Operations Forces to carry out his counterterrorism goals over the years — including the campaign against the Islamic State group.
“The campaign against ISIL has been relentless, sustainable, and multilateral,” Obama said, using an alternative name for the terror organisation. “We built an international coalition of nearly 70 nations, surged our intelligence resources to better understand the enemy, and then took the fight to ISIL in Iraq and Syria.”
Obama said that more than 16,000 airstrikes by the US-led anti-ISIS coalition have lost ISIL “more than half of its territory,” as a crackdown on online propaganda and foreign fighters has limited the terror group’s reach and manpower.
Still, Obama warned, the fight is far from over. The emergence of ISIS was the result of “a breakdown of order that had been building for decades, which unleashed forces that will take a generation to solve.”
“While we have made it much more difficult to carry out an attack approaching the scale of 9/11, we face a threat that will endure,” he said. “We have to take a long view of the terrorist threat, and pursue a smart strategy that can be sustained.”
Obama also criticised Congress for not voting on a new authorization of military force, or AUMF, to attack ISIS. Obama has relied on the 2001 authorization for the use of military force against Al Qaeda and “associated forces” to justify the US’ military campaign against ISIS.
“Democracies should not operate in a state of permanently authorised war,” he said. “Congress needs to fulfil constitutional duty and authorise use of force against threats we face today. That’s how democracies are supposed to work.”
He went on to rebuke decisions inspired by “fear,” such as the use of torture and religious discrimination, including some apparent veiled shots at Trump.
“I must protect our people, but I also swore an oath to defend our Constitution,” Obama said. “Staying true to our tradition as a nation of laws, we prohibited torture everywhere, including tactics like waterboarding. And no one has ever told me that doing so has prevented us from obtaining good intelligence.”
“When we do capture terrorists, our interrogation teams have obtained valuable information without operating outside the law,” he added, saying “we have to fight terrorists in a way that doesn’t create more terrorists” and calling for the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.
Trump has in the past advocated the use of torture through tactics like waterboarding.
“The US was founded so people could practice their religious as they choose,” Obama continued, appearing to take aim at Trump’s proposal to bar Muslims from countries with high levels of terrorist activity from entering the US.
“We have bled, struggled, sacrificed, against discrimination and arbitrary rule,” Obama said. “And we have a right to live in a society where we can criticise a president without threat of retribution. … We are a nation that — at our best — has been defined by hope, and not fear.”