Washington, D.C. – In what was billed as the final major national security address of his administration, President Barack Obama took a victory lap for his counterterrorism achievements in remarks made to Special Operations and Central Command officials at MacDill Air Force Base.
The Dec. 6 speech also doubled a thinly veiled rebuttal to the counterterrorism approach proposed by President-Elect Donald Trump.
The wide-ranging remarks celebrated progress made in the war against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL); withdrawal of troops from the Middle East; prohibition against torture and indiscriminate strikes against areas that harbor militants; downsizing of the detention facility at Gitmo; and sustained diplomacy in the Middle East, among other topics.
“No foreign terrorist organization has successfully planned and executed an attack on our homeland,” the president said. “Terrorists have been taken off the battlefield, and we’ve done this even after we’ve taken 180,000 of our troops out of harm’s way in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
U.S. and its allies squeezing extremists at a fraction of the cost, Obama says
Obama tallied the victories he says his administration has won against ISIL, touting the fact that it has only cost the United States $10 billion in two years – “the same amount we used to spend in one month at the height of the war in Iraq.”
The United States has featured special operations forces – which have helped lead training missions and enable local forces across the Middle East – at the center of that strategy. In doing so, the United States has worked to avoid the dangers of strategic overreach that have plagued previous great powers, Obama said.
“I believe that we must never hesitate to act when necessary, including unilaterally when necessary against any imminent threat to our people. But I also have insisted that it is unwise and unsustainable to ask our military to build nations on the other side of the world,” he said. “Instead it’s been my conviction that even as we focus relentlessly on terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda and ISIL, we should…strengthen local partners who can provide lasting security.”
As a result of that strategy, al-Qaeda is decimated, Afghanistan is better prepared to combat the Taliban, and ISIL has lost more than half of the territory it controlled in Iraq and Syria at the height of its reign, the president said.
Counterterrorism strategy has upheld democratic values, Obama says
The president cast his counterterrorism strategy as one that embraces democratic values as he highlighted his administration’s prohibition on torture, efforts to close Gitmo, and policies that seek to limit the number of civilian casualties that result from targeted strikes.
The strategies stand in stark contrast to those proposed by Trump, who at various points in the presidential campaign advocated for the use of torture on suspected terrorists and the wholesale bombing of territories controlled by militants.
“The whole objective of these terrorists is to scare us into changing who we are and our democracy,” Obama said. “We need the wisdom to see that upholding our values and adhering to the rule of law is not a weakness. In the long-term it is our greatest strength.”
The president also pushed back against oft-changing proposals by the President-Elect Trump to ban Muslims from immigrating to the United States, allowing in certain Muslims but not others, or implement “extreme vetting” procedures.
“The United States of America doesn’t impose religious tests for the price of freedom. We are a country that was founded so people can practice their faith as they choose,” he said. “The United States of America is not a place where some citizens have to withstand greater scrutiny or carry a special ID card…we are a country that has bled and sacrificed to fight against that kind of arbitrary rule.”
Featured Image courtesy of Tampa Bay Times.