President Barack Obama took the podium Tuesday night in his last State of the Union looking to take back his legacy. An array of polls show the American public is as anxious about terrorism and national security — and the government’s ability to provide it — as it has been since 9/11.
“America has been through big changes before … Each time, there have been those who told us to fear the future; who claimed we could slam the brakes on change, promising to restore past glory if we just got some group or idea that was threatening America under control,” Obama said. “And each time, we overcame those fears.”
“I know this is a dangerous time. But that’s not because of diminished American strength or some looming superpower,” he continued. “The Middle East is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia … And the international system we built after World War II is now struggling to keep pace with this new reality. It’s up to us to help remake that system.”
The young senator from Illinois won the White House in 2008 with a message of hope and change that appealed to a country wearied by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that had worn away at the U.S. relationship to the international community. Less than a year ahead of the 2016 election to choose his successor, Republican critics and campaign-trail pundits have pushed a narrative Obama can’t seem to scuttle: that he is weak and feckless and lacks a national security strategy. Just look at the slogan of GOP frontrunner Donald Trump: “Make America Great Again.”
Obama called the partisan rancor on national security “hot air.” “All the rhetoric you hear about our enemies getting stronger and America getting weaker. The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It’s not even close. We spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and his party have done their part, repeating the “there is no strategy” line for more than a year despite defense and military leaders explaining the president’s plan repeatedly on Capitol Hill. “There appears to be confusion about whether there is a plan to defeat ISIL and whether or not the U.S. is gonna step up and play the kind of leadership role that is necessary,” McConnell said ahead of the speech. “I would expect the president to paint a cheerful picture that the American people do not have in mind when they think of the country at this particular moment.”
Obama’s extension of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, intractable conflict in Syria, the rise of the Islamic State, and a spate of terrorist attacks reaching U.S. soil have done little to bridge the nation’s decades-old divide and renewed debate over America’s role in the world. Yet his opponents have skillfully tapped into today’s anxiety with fear-mongering and nativism. While authorities recently arrested two refugees from Iraq on terrorism-related charges, early hyperbole over the threat posed among the masses fleeing war has led to calls for extreme policy measures.
“How do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman?” Obama asked. “And finally, how can we make our politics reflect what’s best in us, and not what’s worst?”
He sought to counter what has proven an effective political strategy: fear is a more potent tool to motivate voters than the patience required of “stay the course.”
Ahead of the speech, the administration acknowledged the stakes, promising a “nontraditional” address with “big ideas” to “change the political environment” harkening back to the more optimistic, higher-altitude messaging of Obama’s campaign days. “I want us to be able, when we walk out this door, to say, ‘We couldn’t think of anything else that we didn’t try to do … that we weren’t timid or got tired or somehow thinking about the next thing,” Obama said in a video. Because there is no next thing.”
In his address Tuesday, he highlighted landmark achievements from the nuclear deal with Iran to reopening relations with Cuba and taking out al Qaeda leadership. “If you doubt America’s commitment — or mine — to see that justice is done, ask Osama bin Laden,” he said. As part of the White House rollout of the address, National Security Council spokesman Ned Price tweeted: “The U.S. ended two costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, bringing home 90% of 180K troops deployed” — and immediately drew criticism for the claim, as American troops continue to die fighting in both countries. Roughly 3,500 U.S. troops are deployed in Iraq to assist Iraqi security forces wresting back territory from ISIS. In October, Obama extended the drawdown timeline for Afghanistan and set force levels for 9,800 U.S. troops beyond his presidency.
While the U.S.-led, 65-nation counter-ISIS coalition has made some gains, with Iraqis taking back Ramadi, it’s cost 9,500 airstrikes and an estimated $5 billion. The administration’s clumsy refusal to plainly state that U.S. boots are on the ground in combat in the Middle East has opened the president to criticism he is not sending enough troops to fight the enemy.
To that, in his speech, Obama said, “We have to take ‘em out. But as we focus on destroying ISIL, over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands … they do not threaten our national existence. That’s the story ISIL wants to tell.”
Obama has by many accounts expanded U.S. military interventions abroad, though in more precise and covert ways, from drone strikes to the counter-ISIL air campaign to unilateral special operations raids to kill or capture terrorist leaders. McConnell said Tuesday, “The president likes to kill terrorists, and I’m all for that.” But the president sees his approach as avoiding a large land war in the Middle East. Even as the pendulum of public opinion swings back toward the use of force, it’s not yet clear American appetite has been piqued for a sizeable, indefinite deployment of U.S. ground troops in foreign conflicts — a reality underscored by the fact that despite their criticisms, few presidential candidates are advocating for a large number of American boots on the ground to fight ISIS (or recommending options dramatically different than the president’s.)
Obama put the debate to the legislators before him. “If this Congress is serious about winning this war, and wants to send a message to our troops and the world, you should finally authorize the use of military force against ISIL,” he said. “Take a vote.”
“That kind of leadership depends on the power of our example,” Obama said. “That is why I will keep working to shut down the prison at Guantanamo: it’s expensive, it’s unnecessary, and it only serves as a recruitment brochure for our enemies.”
But when asked earlier if Congress would prevent the president from shuttering the prison, McConnell said, “I sure hope so … it’s the perfect place for terrorists.”
Obama acknowledges the U.S. war against ISIS will outlast him. The terrorist group has brought in a new era of counterterrorism post-9/11, marked by domestic “lone wolf” attacks virtually impossible to predict. Despite the small risk of death by terrorism on U.S. soil, an anxious American public has determined — with its polling at least, and it’s too soon to tell whether that will translate to the ballot box — that any risk is unacceptable, while national security officials say zero risk is impossible.
As attention turns away from Obama toward his replacement, the likely result is that despite the president’s push to reunite an American public around a more hopeful vision for its role in the world, his national security legacy will be shadowed by a reactionary American defense strategy that cannot yet transcend conflict in the Middle East.
“The world will look to us to help solve these problems, and our answer needs to be more than tough talk or calls to carpet bomb civilians … We also can’t try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis,” Obama said. “It’s the lesson of Vietnam, of Iraq — and we should have learned it by now. … Leadership means a wise application of military power, and rallying the world behind causes that are right.”