President Barack Obama hopes his successor was listening.
In his final national security address Tuesday, Obama spoke to a room full of service members at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida. But his message was squarely delivered to the next commander in chief.
Obama advised President-elect Donald Trump, without mentioning him by name, on what he framed as a sustainable counterterrorism strategy for the next administration that maintains American values and keeps America safe. Much of that plan, though, without question ran counter to Trump’s views.
Trump, for example, has said he “would bomb the s— out of” Islamic State militants, a terrorist threat he once accused Obama and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton of having created, dubbing them co-founders. He also claimed during the campaign that the Islamic State was rooting for Clinton because Trump “will be their worst nightmare.”
“Rather than offer false promises that we can eliminate terrorism by dropping more bombs or deploying more and more troops or fencing ourselves off from the rest of the world, we have to take a long view of the terrorist threat, and we have to pursue a smart strategy than can be sustained,” Obama warned.
He cast the threat as a group that portrays itself “as the vanguard of a new world order.” “They are not,” he said. “They are thugs and they are murderers and they should be treated that way.”
So far, Trump has refused to detail his plan to destroy the terrorist network, indicating that he would rather not tip his hand to the enemy. But he has announced retired Gen. James Mattis as his defense secretary, and the two are appearing together Tuesday evening at a so-called thank-you rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
Obama, seemingly serving as an outgoing national security adviser to the incoming president, argued that while such terrorists can kill people, “they don’t pose an existential threat to our nation, and we must not make the mistake of elevating them as if they do.”
Doing so, he said, would do their job for them and help with their recruitment.
The president pat himself on the back for protecting the homeland while reducing the number of ground troops deployed in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, noting his move saved lives and resources.
“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,” Obama said. “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 in 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.”
He also advocated against Trump’s call to restore waterboarding and rebuked his rhetoric toward Muslims.
“I always remind myself that as commander in chief, I must protect our people, but I also swore an oath to defend our Constitution,” Obama said. “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. We prohibited torture everywhere, at all times, and that includes tactics like waterboarding.”
“At no time has anybody who has worked with me told me that doing so has cost us good intelligence,” Obama continued. “When we do capture terrorists, despite all the political rhetoric about the need to strip terrorists of their rights, our interrogation teams have obtained valuable information without resorting to torture, without operating outside the law.”
Obama, who has drawn criticism from Trump and other Republicans for refusing to acknowledge “radical Islamic terrorism,” reiterated his view that America is not at war with Islam.
“We are fighting terrorists who claim to fight on behalf of Islam, but they do not speak for over a billion Muslims around the world. And they do not speak for American Muslims, including many who wear the uniform of the United States of America’s military,” Obama said. “If we stigmatize good, patriotic Muslims, that just feeds the terrorists’ narrative. It fuels the same false grievances that they use to motivate people to kill. If we act like this is a war between the United States and Islam, we’re not just gonna lose more Americans to terrorist attacks, but we’ll also lose sight of the very principles we claim to defend.”
And he rejected Trump’s past calls for a religious test for potential immigrants and a database of Syrian refugees that could include Muslims, reminding Trump that he will be leading a free nation.
“We’re a nation that believes freedom can never be taken for granted and that each of us has a responsibility to sustain it, the universal right to speak your mind and to protest against authority, to live in a society that’s open and free, that can criticize a president without retribution, a country where you’re judged by the content of your character rather than what you look like or how you worship or what your last name is or where your family came from,” Obama said. “That’s what separates us from tyrants and terrorists. We are a nation that stands for the rule of law and strengthen the laws of war.”
As Trump continues his hunt for a secretary of state, Obama stressed the importance diplomacy has played in his administration, crediting it for rolling back Iran’s nuclear program and cracking down on Syria’s chemical weapons program.
“Alongside our outstanding military work, we have to draw upon the strengths of our diplomacy. 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. Just think about what we’ve done these last eight years without firing a shot.”
He also announced that he’s directed the government to “for the first time to release a full description of the legal and policy frameworks that guide our military operation around the world.”
“This public information allows for a more informed public debate, and it provides a potential check on unfettered executive power,” he said. “The power of the presidency is awesome, but it is supposed to be bound by you, our citizens.”
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