President Barack Obama on Tuesday defended his approach to fighting the Islamic State and al-Qaeda in a speech that appeared to feature several tips for his successor, Donald Trump.
Obama used what was likely his final national security address to press for continuing his policy of avoiding resource-draining U.S. ground operations in the Middle East. He argued the use of armed drones, elite warriors and local troops has decimated al-Qaeda and has begun to substantially weaken the Islamic State. Trump has suggested some major changes to Obama’s strategy, including working with Russia, tightening Muslims’ access to the U.S., and teaming with any country that promises to fight “radical Islam.”
Obama, speaking to elite troops at the U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, argued so-called “targeted killings” — which rely on armed drone strikes and commando raids — kill fewer citizens in Muslim countries and give extremist groups less recruiting fodder. He also said his way is much cheaper for the U.S. taxpayer.
Obama asserted that U.S. and local forces are “breaking the back of ISIL — and we’ve accomplished all this at a cost of $10 billion over 2 years.” The sum, he added, is the same amount that Washington spent in a month during the George W. Bush administration-launched war in Iraq.
Obama and Trump agree on one thing: The United States should avoid nation-building, especially in the Middle East, a point the former reiterated on Tuesday.
The outgoing administration clearly is eager for its counterterrorism strategy — or large parts — to be continued by the Trump administration, though the president-elect and his team have been critical of it.
“The best option becomes a targeted strike,” Obama said. But he called for the rules his team placed on the drone program to be kept in place, including one that seeks a “near-certainty that no civilians will be injured or killed.” He called that the “highest standard that we can set.”
Human rights groups and some in Obama's own party argue drone strikes are inhumane. The president answered them directly: “You have to weigh the alternatives. Allow us to deny safe haven with airstrikes that are less precise.” Overall, Obama argued his targeted-killing program and reliance on Afghan, Iraqi, and Syrian rebel forces has “saved lives, at home and abroad.”
Obama also appeared to continue something he’s done since Election Day: laying down markers for Trump.
Some were more tactical in nature, like when Obama said U.S. officials must be careful not to alienate local populations and make it easy for terrorist organizations to recruit new members by using too heavy a military hand.
Others were more strategic. One example came when Obama pointed to the American flags behind him and said the country’s citizens, soldiers and leaders must have “the confidence that right makes might, not the other way around.”
“That’s how we’ll protect this great country,” he said. “That’s how we’ll protect our Constitution against all threats, foreign and domestic.”
Another came when the commander in chief noted he “swore an oath to defend our Constitution,” and has tried to ensure the nation’s counterterrorism strategy adheres to it. Yet another came when Obama lauded his ban on torture, all but addressing Trump directly when he revealed no national security official who has worked for him has said the U.S. missed out on intelligence by avoiding enhanced interrogation methods.
“We can get these terrorists and be true to who we are,” Obama said, including by punishing ISIS or al-Qaeda operatives or sympathizers “through our justice system.”
Other messages the 44th president seemed to be sending the 45th were more fundamental in nature.
While Trump has discussed banning anyone from Muslim countries with any terrorist activity, Obama stressed the United States was founded on the principle of free religious expression. He also stressed America is a country that always has been “defined by hope and not fear.”
But the most pointed comment Obama appeared to aim at his successor was this: Obama stressed that the United States remain a country where one can “criticize our president without retribution.” Just last week, Trump took to Twitter to propose prosecuting those who burn the American flag — or even stripping their citizenship. The social media posts seemed a reaction to flag burning by some protesting his surprising election.