WASHINGTON — US President Barack Obama claimed a number of US’ national security successes during his State of the Union address Tuesday evening, reiterating a past theme that the US must work with global partners and not go it alone.
"American leadership in the 21st century is not a choice between ignoring the rest of the world — except when we kill terrorists — or occupying and rebuilding whatever society is unraveling," Obama said. "Leadership means a wise application of military power, and rallying the world behind causes that are right. It means seeing our foreign assistance as part of our national security, not charity."
Republican lawmakers and analysts spent most of Tuesday attacking Obama's foreign policies, arguing he has not responded aggressively enough to threats posed by the Islamic State group, North Korea and Iran — which earlier in the day took 10 US sailors into custody after two small US naval craft entered Iranian territorial waters.
"I want to hear a plan to defeat ISIS," House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said earlier Tuesday on Fox News, using an acronym for the group.
"Think about it for a moment: from Paris to San Bernardino to Philadelphia to this morning in Istanbul. This is a serious threat. This world is not safe, and I don't want to hear a campaign speech. I want to hear a plan to defeat ISIS … Listen, this president wants to just leave this problem for the next president instead of solving it."
He Obama cited the death of Osama bin Laden and other terrorists at American hands, perhaps an intended as applause line, though it fell flat on the Republican side of the chamber room.
"If you doubt America's commitment — or mine — to see that justice is done, ask Osama bin Laden," he said. "When you come after Americans, we go after you. It may take time, but we have long memories, and our reach has no limit."
Another applause line was his call-out to American troops, tacked onto a refutation of a Republican talking point — that America is getting weaker and its enemies are getting stronger.
"The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It's not even close," Obama said. "We spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined. Our troops are the finest fighting force in the history of the world. No nation dares to attack us or our allies because they know that's the path to ruin."
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter greets members of the Joint Chiefs on Jan. 12 before President Barack Obama arrives to deliver the State of the Union in the House chamber of the US Capitol.
Photo Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Obama, in an unusually brief State of the Union, offered not a litany of proposals for his final year in office to a Congress marked by partisan rancor — "One of the few regrets of my presidency," he said — and instead offered a more optimistic vision than Republicans. He called partisan rancor in Congress "one of the few regrets of my presidency."
He said that while the US must go after and protect against the Islamic State, "over-the-top claims" that the conflict is "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 — they have to be stopped," Obama said. "But they do not threaten our national existence. That's the story ISIL wants to tell; that's the kind of propaganda they use to recruit. We don't need to build them up to show that we're serious, and we sure don't need to push away vital allies in this fight by echoing the lie that ISIL is representative of one of the world's largest religions."
The president said the US is already doing what it needs to do to root out these "killers and fanatics," in its leadership of a 60-nation coalition to "to cut off ISIL's financing, disrupt their plots, stop the flow of terrorist fighters, and stamp out their vicious ideology.
"With nearly 10,000 airstrikes, we are taking out their leadership, their oil, their training camps, and their weapons. We are training, arming, and supporting forces who are steadily reclaiming territory in Iraq and Syria," he said.
Obama called on the Congress to pass a measure to authorize his use of military force, if Congress is serious about taking on the Islamic State.
The optimistic tone came as the public's concerns about terrorism have surged and confidence in the government's handling of terrorism has plummeted, according to a Pew Research Center poll.
Approval for Obama's handling the threat of terrorism specifically has declined, according to Pew, even as his overall job rating (46 percent as of Dec. 15) is little changed. Just 37 percent approved of the way Obama is handling terrorism while 57 percent disapprove, the lowest rating of his presidency for this issue.
Republicans and Democrats are divided on the issue, according to Pew. Fully 72 percent of Republicans say said that using overwhelming force is the best way to defeat global terrorism. Among Democrats, just 27 percent favor the use of overwhelming military force, while 66 percent say said relying too much on military force creates hatred that leads to more terrorism.
The president said the US must espouse a foreign policy that focuses on the threat from Islamic State, al-Qaida and beyond, in order to stave off instability in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan, in parts of Central America, Africa and Asia.
"Some of these places may become safe havens for new terrorist networks; others will fall victim to ethnic conflict, or famine, feeding the next wave of refugees," Obama said.
And Obama took a veiled shot at a Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, of Texas, whose prescription for the Islamic State includes a move to "carpet bomb them into oblivion."
"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," Obama said. "That may work as a TV sound bite, but it doesn't pass muster on the world stage."
Obama warned against US military adventurism in a line that drew applause from many Democratic lawmakers.
"We also can't try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis," Obama said. "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."
Instead, the president said the US is taking a "smarter approach, a patient and disciplined strategy that uses every element of our national power."
"It says America will always act, alone if necessary, to protect our people and our allies; but on issues of global concern, we will mobilize the world to work with us, and make sure other countries pull their own weight," Obama said.
It's an approach that led it to partner with local forces in Syria "to help that broken society pursue a lasting peace," stop the spread of Ebola in West Africa and strike a nuclear deal with Iran."
While many Republican lawmakers oppose the Iran deal, the president on Tuesday reiterated that the US was the center of 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," Obama said.
In an important election year, Republicans have hammered the president on national security, repeatedly accusing the president of not having a plan to deal with the terrorist group. They maintain the president's leadership has cost the US its standing around the globe and made Americans less safe.
McCarthy, earlier in the day, called Obama, "tone deaf."
"Can't he see what's going on around the world," McCarthy said. "Can't he see the feelings that [are] happening in America? It's a lot of his actions that is causing this to grow. ISIS is not a jayvee JV team. This is serious. They are in 20 different countries. And we need to take them seriously and have a strategy to defeat them."
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, in the Republican response to the speech, said the US is "facing the most dangerous terrorist threat our nation has seen since September 11th, and this president appears either unwilling or unable to deal with it. Soon, the Obama presidency will end, and America will have the chance to turn in a new direction."
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, who ran unsuccessfully against Obama in 2008, said earlier Tuesday on MSNBC rapped Obama’s "feckless" response to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad earlier Tuesday on MSNBC, and said Obama’s legacy would include a flawed nuclear deal which empowers a dangerous Iran.
"They've got us. I mean, it's really remarkable," said McCain, R-Ariz. said. "And so I think his legacy will be that as well. And look, he inspired millions of Americans to be involved in a political process. He still has a very strong base of affection and support in parts of America. He is an articulate individual who I think has done a good job in that respect, and so I'll leave it up to historians."
Earlier in the day, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pledged to usher to the Senate floor a North Korea sanctions bill, which sailed through the House earlier in the day in response to a nuclear test there in the reclusive Communist country. He said the same McConnell repeated a similar pledge for an Iran sanctions bill aimed at restricting sanctions relief, which is opposed by the White House, which said it will to stymy stymie implementation of the deal. The White House is also opposed to the Iran sanctions measure.
"There's so many problems in so many places," said McConnell, R-Ky. said. "The next president is really going to have his hands full."
In his speech, Obama pledged to "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."
Earlier in the day, McConnell vowed to block the president's efforts to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, which he called "the perfect place for terrorists."
"The president likes to kill terrorists, and I think that's great, McConnell said. "I'm all for killing terrorists. But even more important is to capture terrorists and interrogate them and try to find out what they know, and the president doesn't seem to be very interested in interrogation."