WHITE HOUSE � In his final national security speech, President Barack Obama thanked U.S. troops for keeping America safe and, without mentioning his name, rejected President-elect Donald Trump's call for a ban on Muslims and his support expressed during the election campaign for waterboarding.
In a speech Tuesday to troops at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, Obama said, Over the last eight years, no foreign terrorist organization has successfully planned and executed an attack on our homeland, adding that it was not for a lack of trying. He told the troops, This is your work.
Before the speech, the president met with and thanked U.S. Central Command and Special Operations leaders and troops at MacDill.
Obama laid out how he views the status of the fight against terror after his two terms, getting loud applause when he said al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden is dead.
He noted with pride that when he took office, 180,000 U.S. troops were deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying that number is now down to 15,000.
He said the reduction in U.S. ground forces deployed in war zones marks a deliberate shift in strategy to rely more on building strong international coalitions and relying on local partners, in order to reduce American casualties and monetary costs.
Obama touted substantial progress against the Islamic State terrorist group, saying, "The bottom line is we are breaking the back of ISIL (Islamic State). He said the cost was considerably lower than efforts in the previous administration, putting it at $10 billion over two years.
He said that although great progress has been made, the job is not done, and he noted that in recent years, the deadliest attacks on the homeland have been carried out by homegrown and largely isolated individuals radicalized online.
But he cautioned against losing perspective on the threat that terror poses.
Today's terrorists can kill innocent people, but they do not pose an existential threat to our nation," he said, saying terrorists are killers and thugs, and we should treat them as such.
Obama said his administration prohibited torture, including waterboarding.
Upholding our values and adhering to the rule of law is not a weakness. It is our greatest strength, he said.
During the campaign, Trump promised he would get tougher on terrorists and their families and said he supports waterboarding.
Obama said it is past time to shut down the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, calling it a blot on America's honor.
He called on Congress to vote on a new authorization of the use of military force for the fight against Islamic State.
In an indirect criticism of Trump's call for a ban on Muslims, Obama said the war on terror cannot be a war on Islam, adding: Protecting liberty is something we do for all Americans, not just some.
Some critics of the president's counterterror strategy, including President-elect Trump, say that by pulling U.S. forces out of Iraq, Obama created a vacuum that terrorists have used to set up a base.
Terrorism expert Max Abrahms of Northeastern University disagrees, saying the original sin on Iraq was former President George W. Bush's decision to depose former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Abrahms also faults Obama for regime change in Libya. But he said Obama's overall record in the fight against terror is respectable.
I think Obama, to his credit, improved at counterterrorism over time. His initial response to the Islamic State was too tepid. It was too slow. It wasn't intense enough," Abrahms said.
And it was only when our journalist James Foley had his head chopped off, when [Islamic State executioner] 'Jihadi John' bragged about it, that Obama went before the American public and basically rallied support for a more robust counterterrorism mission," he said.
Abrahms agreed with Obama that one of the biggest issues that remains to be resolved is the problem of lone wolf terrorists at home, individuals radicalized online and acting on their own.
Colin Clarke of the RAND Corporation praised Obama's national security record for his ability to form large international coalitions and his prohibition of torture, saying, I think they will outlast this presidency and give some momentum to President-elect Trump as he grapples with a very serious set of circumstances."
Clarke pointed out that the person Trump chose to be his secretary of defense, retired Marine General James Mattis, recently said waterboarding is not effective.
Mattis is someone that has spoken out against waterboarding and so we are likely to see him [Trump] taking the wise counsel he is now surrounding himself with and possibly being a bit more deliberative and discerning with respect to some of those positions he has taken.
Source: Voice of America