Obama says terrorism no existential threat to US
Washington - US President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address was not the typical such address. The US Constitution requires the president to periodically inform Congress of the “state of the union” and present his proposed actions. In recent decades, presidents have used the address to lay out their policy agenda and priorities.
Obama, however, turned his address into a philosophical reflection on the future and the challenges the United States will face. His overall tone was optimistic: Referring to challenges the country has faced, he noted that “we overcame those fears” and emerged as an even stronger nation.
While most of the January 12th nationally televised speech was devoted to domestic challenges — issues such as economic inequality, education and “making technology work for us” — a good 25% focused of the address on America’s position in the world. It was here Obama was the most optimistic.
The president said that accusations that the United States is getting weaker while its enemies are strengthening is “a lot of hot air”. He acknowledged that “this is a dangerous time”, but said that, unlike the tense Cold War years, “we are threatened less by evil empires and more by failing states”.
Obama said his first priority in foreign policy was “protecting the American people and going after terror networks”.
Using another acronym for Islamic State (ISIS), he said that “al- Qaeda and ISIL pose a direct threat to the American people”, and vowed to “take them out”. Anyone who doubts his seriousness, the president said, “should just ask Osama bin Laden”, and he warned terror groups, “When you come after Americans, we come after you… and our reach has no limits.”
Obama also said the battle against terrorism is not “World War III”, and that “over-the-top claims” that it is “play into [the terrorists’] hands”. He added that while terrorism poses a threat to American civilians, “it does not threaten our national existence”.
He reiterated the need to follow a “patient-and-disciplined” strategy in fighting terrorism, a position he has argued consistently, even after high-profile terrorist incidents such as Paris and San Bernardino. And he called on Congress to pass legislation authorising military force against ISIS, a move Congress has been reluctant to do but would greatly expand the president’s military options.
In an apparent reference to his policy towards the Syrian civil war, Obama said that one of the questions Americans must answer is, “How do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman?”
The United States “cannot take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis”, Obama said, a clear reference to the US experience in Iraq and Afghanistan in the years prior to his election in 2008. He said that avoiding “quagmires” is imperative if the United States wants to remain strong. “Spilling American blood and treasure” would only make America weaker, he said.
Obama made only passing reference to the historic deal he and other nations negotiated with Iran: “As we speak, Iran has rolled back its nuclear programme, shipped out its uranium stockpile and the world has avoided another war.”
He made no reference to the ten US sailors who were arrested by Iran earlier in the day when their boats accidentally entered Iranian waters. The sailors were released several hours after the president’s speech.
Many passages in Obama’s speech were clearly directed at the heated rhetoric of some Republican presidential candidates. For example, in reference to a remark by US Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Obama said that “calls to carpet bomb civilians… may work as a TV sound bite but it doesn’t pass muster on the world stage”.
And in a passionate response to anti-Muslim sentiment — best reflected in Republican candidate Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the country — Obama said, “When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalised, or a kid bullied, that doesn’t make us safer… It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. And it betrays who we are as a country”.
Republican criticism of Obama’s final State of the Union address began before the president had even left the House chamber. He will be accused of “leading from behind”, failing to adequately respond to threats and of being too timid in using America’s great military power.
Certainly some critics will note that Obama’s refused to call ISIS militants “Islamic terrorists” — he referred to them as “killers and fanatics” and pointedly said that they do not represent Islam.
But Obama appeared content with the message he had conveyed and it is clear that he has no intention of revising his policies towards Syria, Iran, ISIS or any of the other Middle Eastern issues. It will be for historians to determine whether Obama’s vision of America and its future is accurate.