Politics

Obama Lays Out Excuses for Terror Legacy

Outgoing president argues hands were tied in Iraq, blames gun laws and internet for homegrown terror

President Obama on Tuesday mounted a defense against his two greatest shortcomings in the war on terrorism — the rise of the Islamic State abroad and the explosion of homegrown attacks in America.

Speaking at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, the president sought to absolve himself from responsibility for the growth of ISIS — an organization he once famously dismissed as a “JV team” — by prematurely withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011.

“By 2011, Iraqis wanted our military presence in Iraq to end, and they were unwilling to sign a new status-of-forces agreement to protect our troops from prosecution if they were trying to defend themselves in Iraq.”

“As a practical matter, this was not an option,” he said. “By 2011, Iraqis wanted our military presence in Iraq to end, and they were unwilling to sign a new status-of-forces agreement to protect our troops from prosecution if they were trying to defend themselves in Iraq.”

After bragging that “no foreign terrorist organization has successfully planned and executed an attack on our homeland,” Obama acknowledged so-called “lone wolf” attacks in Boston, California, Orlando, and Fort Hood — the last example notable because the Obama administration initially refused to label the mass shooting at the Army base as an act of terrorism.

In pinpointing the cause of those attacks, Obama reached for two familiar boogeymen, the internet and — wait for it — lax guns laws.

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“And somebody who’s trying to kill and willing to be killed is dangerous, particularly when we live in a country where it’s very easy for that person to buy a very powerful weapon,” he said.

The homegrown terrorist attacks, Obama said, have “been carried out by homegrown and largely isolated individuals who were radicalized online.”

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Some counterterrorism experts reject the online radicalization theory, arguing that people do not accidentally stumble onto extremist propaganda. They are pushed there by a radical mosque or imam, or by Islamist texts taught in some Muslim schools in the United States, they say.

Obama also suggested that the danger posed by terrorism has been exaggerated.

“The terrorist threat is real and it is dangerous,” he said. “But these terrorists want to cast themselves as the vanguard of a new world order. They are not. They are thugs. They are murderers. And they should be treated that way.”

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The pace of the military effort against ISIS has been painstakingly slow, but Obama insisted that he has pursued that effort in a smart way that minimizes U.S. involvement, both in blood and treasure. He said 70 nations are participating in a coalition against ISIS and that coalition forces have launched more than 16,000 airstrikes against the group.

“ISIL has lost control of more than half its territory,” he said. “ISIL has lost control of major population centers. Its morale is plummeting. Its recruitment is drying up. Its commanders and external plotters are being taken out. And local populations are turning against it.”

Obama said ISIS is losing Mosul, its last major stronghold in Iraq, and is being “squeezed” in its self-styled capital in Raqqa, Syria.

“We are breaking the back of ISIL,” he said.

Parts of Obama’s speech comfortably could have been given by President-Elect Donald Trump. For instance, he defended the right of the U.S. military to strike unilaterally, if necessary.

“But I’ve also insisted that it is unwise and unsustainable to ask our military to build nations on the other side of the world or resolve their internal conflicts, particularly in places where our forces become a magnet for terrorists and insurgencies,” he said.

Trump set off an firestorm of controversy on the campaign trail when he suggested he would not allow freeloading by American allies who benefit from U.S. protection but do not even spend the amount of money on defense required by NATO rules.

But don’t expect much blowback against Obama for this statement, talking about the fight against terrorists and insurgents in the Middle East: “We should ask allies to do their share in the fight.”

Obama devoted the rest of his speech to bragging about successes, such as fulfilling his promise to wind down the war in Iraq and bring home most of the 150,000 troops deployed there when he took office. He also touted the fact that he has reduced the inmate population at the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility from 242 to 59. But he lamented that “the politics of fear” has led Congress to thwart his desire to close the facility.

Obama recounted America’s past wars and expressed a sentiment almost every American would agree with — that the United States does not seek empire.

“We didn’t hold on to territory, other than the cemeteries where we buried out dead,” he said.

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