By Kevin Liptak, CNN
(CNN) — The new era in America’s war on terror — described by President Barack Obama in a major address Thursday — worries some Republicans, who say the phase-down could leave the country vulnerable to still-persistent threats from abroad.
In his remarks, Obama insisted the fight against terrorists must shift to reflect current threat levels, which he described as having evolved since the attacks of September 11, 2001. The global “war on terror,” launched in the aftermath of those attacks, must end, “like all wars,” the president maintained.
“I think this is the most significant foreign policy address ever given by this president,” said Rep. Michael McCaul, the Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. “At the same time I found many parts to it disturbing for many reasons.”
Chief among his concerns was Obama’s call for a return to what McCaul described as a “pre-9/11 mentality,” a mindset the Republican argued could lead to a dangerous level of unpreparedness as threats emerge from sources other than al Qaeda.
“I couldn’t disagree with him more on that,” McCaul said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
In his remarks Thursday, Obama described al Qaeda as “on the path to defeat” in its longstanding bases of Afghanistan and Pakistan, but warned the terror group’s affiliates in other countries still posed lethal threats to Americans.
But those groups, Obama said, are “less capable” than the larger al Qaeda, and are focused more on operating in the countries where they’re based, rather than planning an attack on the American homeland.
Attacks on America are still being planned, the president warned, and “our nation is still threatened by terrorists.” Yet the current threat has vastly changed in the decade-plus since the war on terror began, he said.
“We have to recognize that the scale of this threat closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11,” the president said.
McCaul said Sunday the intelligence he’s seen as chairman of the homeland security panel suggests a more serious danger than Obama described.
“I think the rhetoric sort of defies the reality in terms of the threat level that we’ve all been briefed on,” he said. “I mean, the narrative is sort of that, you know, al Qaeda is on the run, they’re defeated, let’s claim victory, war’s over. And then let’s go back to a pre-9/11 mentality.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, argued a scaled-down war footing could send the wrong message to potential enemies.
“What do you think the Iranians are thinking? At the end of the day, this is the most tone-deaf president I ever could imagine, making such a speech at a time when our homeland is trying to be attacked literally every day,” Graham said on “Fox News Sunday.”
“I’ve never been more worried about our national security as I am right now. This speech did not help,” Graham added.
“I see a big difference between the president saying a war is at an end and whether or not you’ve won the war,” Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, added on CBS “Face the Nation.” “We can claim it’s at an end but this war is going to continue and we have tremendous threats throughout that are building, not declining, building.”
In his address Thursday, Obama noted the difficulty in balancing Americans’ freedoms during wartime, a task Sen. Dick Durbin argued Sunday would be made easier as the country’s terror stance shifts.
“You find in a warlike atmosphere that you end up compromising some basic values and basic freedoms and liberties,” Durbin, D-Illinois, said on “Fox News Sunday” in his defense of Obama’s speech. “That’s what the president reminded us. I’m not going to take lightly the terrorism threat against the United States. But if we’re constantly thinking of this in the context of war, we stand a very real risk of doing things which compromise our values and freedoms.”
Another Obama ally, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, said on CBS the shift away from war that Obama advocated Thursday was a suitable reflection of how threats have changed in the past decade.
“I think the president did a very, very smart pivot realizing we’re not going to let up on terrorists but at the same time we’re going meet the changes in the world,” he said.