WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama reaffirmed his counter terrorism strategy in his final national security speech Tuesday, issuing a tacit warning to his successor that reversing course could result in dire consequences.
Cautioning against using torture to obtain information and making another pitch for closing the naval prison at Guantanamo Bay, Obama argued against the very promises Donald Trump made during his run for president. Obama warned that returning to those practices would ultimately damage US national security.
“Adhering to the rule of law is not a weakness in the long term, it is our greatest strength,” Obama said during an address at MacDill Air Force Base, the Florida headquarters of US Central Command and Special Operations Command. “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.”
Defending his ban on torture, Obama said, “At no time has anybody told me it cost us good intelligence.”
And he called the Guantanamo Bay prison a “blot on our national honor.”
During the presidential campaign, Trump argued for a more aggressive approach to combating terrorism, including reintroducing torture techniques such as waterboarding for interrogations, and banning Muslims from entering the US. He’s also said he would resume placing suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay.
White House officials said Obama’s speech Tuesday was planned ahead of Trump’s win in November’s election and was not meant as a message for Trump. But the President’s remarks Tuesday provided a clear counterpoint to Trump’s national security rhetoric.
He pushed back against pressure to label certain terrorists as “radical Islamist,” saying that risks stigmatizing “good, patriotic Muslims.”
“That just feeds the terrorists’ narrative and fuels the same false grievances that they use to motivate people to kill,” he said.
And he called bids to scrap his diplomatic achievements, including the Iran nuclear deal, a win for the enemy.
“Terrorists would love to see us walk away from the type of work that builds international coalitions and ends conflicts and stops the spread of deadly weapons,” Obama said. “It would make life easier for them. It would be a tragic mistake for us.”
The speech was billed by the White House as a wrap-up of Obama’s 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.
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.
But he also conceded that the war against terrorism wouldn’t have a satisfying ending, at least in the model of more traditional combat missions.
“We will not achieve the kind of clearly defined victory comparable to those that we won in previous wars against nations,” Obama said.
As part of his visit to the Tampa military installation Tuesday, Obama met 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. He said critics should weigh alternatives like airstrikes, which he said were more likely to cause civilian or US military deaths.
Obama spoke the same day Trump officially announced retired Gen. James Matthis as his pick to lead the Pentagon, and as speculation ramps up about the President-elect’s selection for secretary of state.
In his remarks, Obama offered a guiding principle for the incoming administration.
“I always remind myself that, as commander in chief, I must protect our people, but I also swore an oath to defend our constitution. And over these last eight years we’ve demonstrated that staying true to our traditions as a nation of laws advances our security as well as our values,” he said.