In his last State of the Union address Tuesday night, US President Barack Obama attempted to calm the tone of the US national security debate, insisting the Islamic State jihadist group was not an existential threat.
While he acknowledged that al-Qaeda and Islamic State were a threat to the American people, he stressed that “over the top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands.
“Masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks and twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages pose an enormous danger to civilians and must be stopped. But they do not threaten our national existence,” Obama said.
“We don’t need to build them up to show that we’re serious, nor do we need to push away vital allies in this fight by echoing the lie that (IS) is representative of one of the world’s largest religions. We just need to call them what they are – killers and fanatics who have to be rooted out, hunted down, and destroyed.”
The president’s words were unlikely to satisfy Republicans, or some Democrats, who say he underestimates the Islamic State’s power and is leaving the US vulnerable to attacks at home.
Obama stressed that the answer to global crises lay in international cooperation.
“Our answer needs to be more than tough talk or calls to carpet bomb civilians. That may work as a TV sound bite, but it doesn’t pass muster on the world stage,” he said. “There’s a smarter approach, a patient and disciplined strategy… on issues of global concern, we will mobilize the world to work with us, and make sure other countries pull their own weight. That’s our approach to conflicts like Syria, where we’re partnering with local forces and leading international efforts to help that broken society pursue a lasting peace,” he said.
The president brought up the Iranian nuclear accord as an example of such cooperation paying off.
“We built a global coalition, with sanctions and principled diplomacy, to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. As we speak, Iran has rolled back its nuclear program, shipped out its uranium stockpile, and the world has avoided another war,” he said.
The president, who did not mention Israel in the speech, said “the Middle East is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.” US foreign policy, he said, “must be focused on the threat from ISIL and al Qaeda, but it can’t stop there. For even without ISIL, instability will continue for decades in many parts of the world – in the Middle East, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in parts of Central America, Africa and Asia.” Some of these places, he said, “may become safe havens for new terrorist networks; others will fall victim to ethnic conflict, or famine, feeding the next wave of refugees.”
He said that the US “can’t try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis. That’s not leadership; that’s a recipe for quagmire, spilling American blood and treasure that ultimately weakens us. It’s the lesson of Vietnam, of Iraq – and we should have learned it by now,” he said.
In a swipe at some Republican presidential candidates, he warned against “voices urging us to fall back into tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens who don’t look like us or pray like us or vote like we do or share the same background.”
Hinting at recent divisive comments by Republican presidential contender Donald Trump, who called to block Muslims from entering the US, Obama said Americans must “reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion.
“This isn’t a matter of political correctness. It’s a matter of understanding what makes us strong. The world respects us not just for our arsenal; it respects us for our diversity and our openness and the way we respect every faith…When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, that doesn’t make us safer. That’s not telling it like it is. It’s just wrong. 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,” he said.
Obama urged Americans to rekindle their belief in the promise of change that first carried him to the White House, declaring that the country must not allow election-year fear and division to take hold.
“The future we want,” he insisted, “is within our reach.” But opportunity and security for American families “will only happen if we work together … if we fix our politics,” he added.
The nation’s goals must include “a rising standard of living and a sustainable, peaceful planet for our kids,” he said.
At the heart of Obama’s address to lawmakers and a prime-time television audience was an implicit call to keep Democrats in the White House for a third straight term. Sharply, and at times sarcastically, he struck back at rivals who have challenged his economic and national security stewardship, calling it all “political hot air.”
His words were unexpectedly echoed by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who was selected to give the Republican response to Obama’s address. Underscoring how the heated campaign rhetoric about immigrants and minorities from Trump in particular has unnerved some Republican leaders, Haley called on Americans to resist the temptation “to follow the siren call of the angriest voices.”
“No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome,” Haley said in excerpts released ahead of her remarks.
Seeking to shape his own legacy, Obama ticked through a retrospective of his domestic and foreign policy actions in office, including helping lead the economy back from the brink of depression, taking aggressive action on climate change and ending a Cold War freeze with Cuba.
Obama was frank about one of his biggest regrets: failing to ease the persistently deep divisions between Democrats and Republicans.
“The rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better,” he conceded. “There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.”
Mindful of the scant prospect for major legislative action in an election year, Obama avoided the traditional litany of policy proposals. He did reiterate his call for working with Republicans on criminal justice reform and finalizing an Asia-Pacific trade pact, and he also vowed to keep pushing for action on politically fraught issues such as curbing gun violence and fixing the nation’s fractured immigration laws.
Yet Obama was eager to look beyond his own presidency, casting the actions he’s taken as a springboard for future economic progress and national security. His optimism was meant to draw a contrast with what the White House sees as doom-and-gloom scenarios peddled by the GOP.
“The United States of America is the most powerful nation on earth. Period,” he declared. “It’s not even close.”
Republicans were largely dismissive of the president’s address. House Speaker Paul Ryan, assuming the speaker’s traditional seat behind the president for the first time, said Obama’s “lofty platitudes and nostalgic rhetoric may make for nice soundbites, but they don’t explain how to” solve problems.
Tuesday’s address was one of Obama’s last opportunities to claim a large television audience as president. However, the State of the Union has suffered a major drop-off in viewers in recent years. Last year, Obama’s speech reached 31.7 million viewers, according to Nielson, down from 52 million for his first State of the Union and 62 million for George W. Bush in 2003.