President Obama warns against torture

In his final national security address Tuesday at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., President Barack Obama warned against restoration of an unlawful interrogation technique that Donald Trump has showed support for. President Obama advised the incoming administration to maintain America’s values, even as it works to fight terrorism. Even though the president didn’t name Trump once, much of his speech ran counter to Trump’s campaign rhetoric — particularly his call to reinstate waterboarding.


In what was effectively his farewell speech as commander in chief, President Barack Obama's had a simple message for the military personnel assembled at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida: Thank you, your sacrifice made a difference.

"We should take great pride in progress we have made over eight years," he told the assembled service members. "That's the bottom line. No foreign terrorist network has successfully executed an attack on our homeland, and it's not because they didn't try."

Obama credited that success to alliance-building efforts and better intelligence systems developed over his two terms in office, even as he acknowledged that the threat of smaller-scale terrorist attacks by individuals remains a persistent security problem for the nation.

But he urged policy planners — and indirectly his replacement, President-elect Donald Trump — not to overreact to the threat by over-committing American forces and choosing military might over diplomacy.

"A sustainable counter-terrorism strategy depends on keeping the threat in perspective," Obama said. "The threat is real and dangerous, but these terrorists want to cast themselves as the vanguard of a new world order. They are not. They are thugs and they are murderers, and they should be treated that way.

"Today’s terrorists can kill, but they don’t pose an existential threat to our nation. And we must not make the mistake of elevating them as if they do."

Next month, Obama will leave office after overseeing eight consecutive years of war, though he noted that the military’s combat footprint is a small fraction of its size when he took office.

Nearly 180,000 fewer troops are deployed in Afghanistan and the Middle East than in 2009. But the 15,000 now spread between Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria face a mission with an uncertain future and end date.

He defended those choices as a more "sustainable" foreign policy strategy for the country, as opposed to an enduring and vulnerable military force stationed overseas.

He pushed back on criticism from Trump and others that the withdrawal of troops from Iraq early in his presidency lead to the rise of Islamic State group militants, saying that the Iraqi government gave U.S. planners little choice to station forces there without putting them at undue risk.

"I have never shied away from sending men and women into danger where necessary," he said. "It’s always the hardest decision I make, but it’s one I have made when the security of the American people is at stake.

"And I’ve seen the cost. I’ve held the hands of wounded warriors at Walter Reed. I’ve met the caskets of the fallen at Dover," he added, referring respectively to the military's medical facility in Bethesda, Maryland, and the Air Force Port Mortuary in Delaware. "That’s why I make no apologies for only sending troops into harm’s way when there is a clear mission."

Without ever mentioning Trump, he specifically rebuked the incoming president’s campaign-trail rhetoric that the United States should have seized oil from Iraq during that war, as well as Trump’s promises that more military might will eliminate threats to American live and values.

He chastised Congress for failing to pass new limits on executive war powers in recent years, arguing that it’s unhealthy for the country to persist in a "state of permanently authorized war," especially with an all-volunteer fighting force.

"Today, only one percent of the population is actually fighting," he said. "You are carrying the burden. It is important for us to know what it is we are doing, and have to explain it to the public, because it becomes too easy to send one percent of the public out to do things, even if they’re not thought through."

Earlier in the day, Obama met with members of U.S. Special Operations Command and U.S. Central Command to personally thank them for their sacrifices in recent years. White House officials said they expect the speech to be his final remarks on national security before leaving office next month.

Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at lshane@militarytimes.com.