WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama reaffirmed his counterterrorism strategy in his final national security speech Tuesday, even as his successor has threatened to reverse course on many of Obama’s priorities.
The President acknowledged that the danger of terrorism is a long-term one, saying, “the threat will endure” and needs a sustainable plan of attack.
“We have to pursue a smart strategy,” he said, offering an implicit message to President-elect Donald Trump.
But he largely focused Tuesday on detailing his successes in defeating al Qaeda, battling ISIS and facing other extremist groups before laying out final recommendations going forward.
During a speech at MacDill Air Force Base, the Florida headquarters of US Central Command and Special Operations Command, Obama again called for closing the naval prison at Guantanamo Bay and maintaining a ban on torture — both areas where Trump says he’ll change course.
The speech was billed by the White House Monday as a wrap-up of his national security priorities over his eight years in office. That tenure has included successes like the end to large-scale troop deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan and the killing of Osama bin Laden, but also new challenges like the rise of ISIS and its threats to Europe and the US homeland.
During the presidential campaign, Trump argued for a more aggressive approach to combating terrorism, including reintroducing torture as an interrogation technique, including waterboarding, and banning Muslims from entering the US. He’s also said he would resume placing suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay.
Obama’s message Tuesday runs counter to those positions, though White House officials said the speech was planned ahead of Trump’s win in November’s election.
Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, told reporters Monday that Obama was not attempting to send a message directly to Trump through his speech. But he said there would be important takeaways for the next commander-in-chief included in Obama’s remarks.
“Part of what he’s going to relay that I think is relevant to the incoming team … is the complexity at looking at all of these issues,” Rhodes said.
What he’s going to lay out tomorrow “is his experience in looking across the entire campaign, from the war efforts to the legal questions to the alliance relationships, to the questions about who we are as a country,” Rhodes continued. “That’s something you can only experience as president.”
As part of his visit to the Tampa military installation Tuesday, Obama had planned to meet with Special Operations troops, the elite forces who have carried out some of the more significant missions of his tenure. He argued for an approach that has relied heavily on those special operators to carry out surgical missions to take out terrorists, as well as train local forces to combat ISIS.
He also again addressed the use of drones to take out terrorists, a program that’s drawn legal scrutiny and outrage in countries that have been targeted.
And Obama defended his decision to avoid large ground wars to go after ISIS in Iraq and Syria, arguing for diplomacy in resolving Syria’s civil war.
The President’s inability to find a solution to Syria’s bloody conflict is one of the major frustrations of his presidency. His speech Tuesday comes as misery sets in for residents of Aleppo, where Syrian government forces, backed by Iran, are making gains in retaking the city from opposition fighters.
Rhodes argued that a military intervention into the conflict would not have ended the suffering, saying “at no time has there been a clear plan that we could see how that would make the situation demonstrably better.”
He insisted, however, that Obama has demonstrated a readiness to use military force against terrorists.
“The President, as I think will be clear when he reflects on his whole record, has been more than willing to use military force against threats to the United States,” Rhodes said, citing the mission to take out bin Laden and terror cells in Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia.