In the last major foreign policy speech of his presidency on Tuesday, President Barack Obama defended his counter-terrorism strategy over the last eight years, while simultaneously offering advice to his successor, Donald Trump, along with thinly-veiled criticism of some of the president-elect’s policy proposals.
“I will become the first President of the United States to serve two full terms during a time of war,” Obama said near the beginning of his speech.
“I believe that we must never hesitate to act when necessary, including unilaterally when necessary, against any imminent threats to our people,” the president said, highlighting an approach to foreign policy that has become familiar in the last eight years, and before. “But I have also insisted that it is unwise and unsustainable to ask our military to build nations on the other side of the world, or resolve their internal conflicts, particularly in places where our forces become a magnet for terrorists and insurgencies.”
Obama did not hesitate to refocus attention on his past foreign policy and military successes.
“Today, by any measure, core al Qaeda — the organization that hit us on 9/11 — is a shadow of its former self,” he said. “Plots directed from within Afghanistan and Pakistan have been consistently disrupted. Its leadership has been decimated. Dozens of terrorist leaders have been killed. Osama bin Laden is dead.”
Yet Obama acknowledged that neither his focus on al Qaeda nor the killing of bin Laden have eliminated terrorism. “Now, I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture,” he said. “The situation in Afghanistan is still tough. War has been a part of life in Afghanistan for over 30 years, and the United States cannot eliminate the Taliban or end violence in that country.”
He continued, pointing out that others have filled the vacuum where “core al Qaeda” has been “decimated.”
“Of course, the terrorist threat was never restricted to South Asia, or to Afghanistan, or Pakistan,” Obama said. “Even as al Qaeda has been decimated in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the threat from terrorists metastasized in other parts of the Middle East and North Africa. And most dangerously, we saw the emergence of ISIL, the successor to al Qaeda in Iraq, which fights as both a terrorist network and an insurgency.”
When it comes to ISIL (a.k.a. ISIS, IS, or Daesh), however, Obama says he has also taken the best approach available there as well. “We surged our intelligence resources so that we could better understand the enemy,” he said. “And then we took the fight to ISIL in both Iraq and Syria, not with American battalions but with local forces backed by our equipment and our advisors and, importantly, our Special Forces. In that campaign, we have now hit ISIL with over 16,000 airstrikes. We have equipped and trained tens of thousands of partners on the ground.”
One might be forgiven for wondering whether funneling arms to “tens of thousands of partners” in a highly volatile region such as Syria is really something to brag about, especially with the conflict still far from resolved, though Obama went as far as to say that the campaign against ISIS is a good example of how his counter-terrorism strategy has been effective:
So the campaign against ISIL has been relentless. It has been sustainable. It has been multilateral. And it demonstrates a shift in how we’ve taken the fight to terrorists everywhere from South Asia to the Sahel. Instead of pushing all of the burden onto American ground troops, instead of trying to mount invasions wherever terrorists appear, we’ve built a network of partners.
In Libya, where U.S. airpower has helped local militias dislodge a dangerous ISIL cell. In Mali, where U.S. logistics and intelligence support helped our French allies roll back al Qaeda branches there. In Somalia, where U.S. operations support an African Union-led force and international peacekeepers. And in Yemen, where years of targeted strikes have degraded al Qaeda in the Peninsula.
The president also briefly touched on the increasingly digital dimensions of the war on terrorism under his administration.
“We’ve worked with our tech sector to supports efforts to push back on terrorist messages on social media that motivate people to kill,” he said. “A recent study shows that ISIL’s propaganda has been cut in half. We’ve launched a Global Engagement Center to empower voices that are countering ISIL’s perversion of Islam, and we’re working closely with Muslim-majority partners from the Gulf to Southeast Asia.”
President Obama also noted the increase in domestic terrorism on his watch, saying that “what complicates the challenge even more is the fact that for all of our necessary focus on fighting terrorists overseas, the most deadly attacks on the homeland over the last eight years have not been carried out by operatives with sophisticated networks or equipment, directed from abroad. They’ve been carried out by homegrown and largely isolated individuals who were radicalized online.”
The War on Terror has not been won. And as Obama made clear, it is quite likely unwinnable, though that doesn’t seem to have made him rethink it as a broader strategy. While the US military has “made it much more difficult to carry out an attack approaching the scale of 9/11, the threat will endure. We will not achieve the kind of clearly defined victory comparable to those that we won in previous wars against nations. We won’t have a scene of the Emperor of Japan and Douglas MacArthur in a surrender. And the reason we won’t have that is because technology makes it impossible to completely shield impressionable minds from violent ideologies,” he said.
Obama said that he makes “no apologies for only sending our troops into harm’s way when there is a clear mission that is achievable and when it is absolutely necessary.” He said that “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 whole objective of these terrorists is to scare us into changing the nature of who we are and our democracy. And the fact is, people and nations do not make good decisions when they are driven by fear. These terrorists can never directly destroy our way of life, but we can do it for them if we lose track of who we are and the values that this nation was founded upon.”
Obama noted that he has “prohibited torture, everywhere, at all times — and that includes tactics like waterboarding” and that on his watch “we’ve cut the population in Gitmo from 242 to 59.” These are both achievements that Obama’s successor has — at times, at least — strongly suggested that he would attempt to reverse.
Though it has arguably not always been the case during his administration, Obama said that “we have to fight terrorists in a way that does not create more terrorists.” He also expressed frustration that the legal rationale for our present involvement in various conflicts is somewhat flimsy, and his hope that Congress would do something about it.
“Right now, we are waging war under authorities provided by Congress over 15 years ago — 15 years ago. I had no gray hair 15 years ago,” Obama said. “Two years ago, I asked Congress, let’s update the authorization, provide us a new authorization for the war against ISIL, reflecting the changing nature of the threats, reflecting the lessons that we’ve learned from the last decade. So far, Congress has refused to take a vote.”
While the audience of military members — somewhat unnervingly — initially applauded the president when he pointed out his status as the first two-term nonstop wartime commander-in-chief, some also clapped after Obama’s statement that “democracies should not operate in a state of permanently authorized war.”
“That’s not good for our military, it’s not good for our democracy,” Obama said.
“And finally, in this fight, we have to uphold the civil liberties that define us. Terrorists want us to turn on one another. And while defeating them requires us to draw upon the enormous capabilities of all of our government, we have make sure changes in how we address terrorists are not abused. This is why, for example, we’ve made extensive reforms in how we gather intelligence around the world, increasing oversight, placing new restrictions on the government’s ability to retain and search and use certain communications so that people trust us, and that way they cooperate and work with us.”
Whether Obama’s civil liberties record is really something to brag about is debatable. It is also unclear how long his limited reforms in areas such as surveillance will survive in the Trump era. Much of Obama’s basic reasoning for what should have happened in terms of foreign policy during his presidency seems pretty spot-on, though, even if it is more wishful thinking than reality-based.
“We don’t use our power to indiscriminately read emails or listen to phone calls — just targeted at folks who might be trying to do us harm,” Obama said. “We use it to save lives. And by doing so, by maintaining these civil liberties, we sustain the confidence of the American people and we get the cooperation of our allies more readily. Protecting liberty — that’s something we do for all Americans, and not just some.”
This last set of statements, like many others Obama made during the speech, could be picked apart and the extent of their veracity endlessly debated. One thing that seems increasingly clear regarding foreign policy during the Obama years, however, is that the president’s extension and expansion of his predecessor’s unprecedented Global War on Terrorism, morphing it into the present paradigm of “Gray Zone” operations and similar euphemistically-titled military activities, has set the stage for President-elect Trump to attempt to justify any number of actions.
Unfortunately for President Obama, foreign policy decisions will soon be fully in the hands of his political opposition, despite eight years of governing with the apparent assumption that it would be one of his political allies to take the reins following his continuation of the previously ongoing expansion of executive power in so many areas.