Obama: Al-Qaeda and ISIS Don't Threaten 'Our National Existence'

Fighters from the Islamic State group parade in their northern Syrian stronghold, Raqqa. AP/Raqqa Media Center
Fighters from the Islamic State group parade in their northern Syrian stronghold, Raqqa. AP/Raqqa Media Center

In his final State of the Union address, President Barack Obama said the terrorist groups al-Qaeda and Islamic State pose a "direct threat" to Americans but don't threaten "our national existence."

"Both al-Qaeda and now ISIL pose a direct threat to our people, because in today's world, even a handful of terrorists who place no value on human life, including their own, can do a lot of damage," he said, referring to the Islamic State in Iraq or Syria, or ISIS, also known as ISIL. "They use the Internet to poison the minds of individuals inside our country; they undermine our allies."

His comments came a month after 14 people were killed and 22 others injured when a married couple inspired by Islamic extremists attacked employees at a social services center for the disabled in San Bernardino, California.

But Obama also warned, "As we focus on destroying ISIL, 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."

Since 2014, almost 10,000 airstrikes launched by U.S. and allied warplanes have bombed ISIS targets, destroying "their leadership, their oil, their training camps, and their weapons," he said. "We are training, arming, and supporting forces who are steadily reclaiming territory in Iraq and Syria."

Yet the administration's strategy for combating the group and others by training rebels has been heavily criticized by Republicans.

Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has blasted the Pentagon's $500 million program to eventually train and arm up to 5,400 moderate Syrian rebels. In September, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of U.S. Central Command, acknowledged the effort had only resulted in some 60 fighters and, of those, only "four or five" fit for battle.

In his roughly hour-long speech, Obama drew groans from Republicans when he described as "political hot air" the idea that America is getting weaker while its enemies are getting stronger.

In a statement released after the president's address, Sen. James Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma and a member of the Senate defense panel, criticized Obama for what he said was prematurely removing U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.

After withdrawing American combat forces from Iraq in 2011, Obama reversed course after the rise of ISIS and the U.S. now has about 3,550 troops in the country. More recently, the president authorized the deployment of a special "targeting force" of about 200 personnel to conduct operations in both Iraq and Syria. Obama has also delayed a planned drawdown of American forces in Afghanistan, though they're expected to number to about 5,000 by the end of 2016, down from about 9,800 today.

"His lack of leadership has resulted in global instability, the rise of ISIS and the drastic weakening of our military," Inhofe said. "Americans are now less safe because of Middle Eastern instability he caused with the hasty withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan. The deal he signed with Iran does nothing but appease our enemy and with every terrorist released from Guantanamo Bay we have another attacker to be worried about."

Obama defended the lighter U.S. military footprint abroad and called on lawmakers to support an authorization for the use of military force against ISIS.

"We also can't try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis," he 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."

Obama also vowed to continue working to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay. "It’s expensive, it’s unnecessary, and it only serves as a recruitment brochure for our enemies," he said.

Notably, the president's only mention of Iran was to tout the international accord designed to prevent the country from obtaining a nuclear weapon. He didn't reference the news Tuesday evening that Iran was holding two small U.S. naval boats and their 10 American crew members -- nine men and one woman -- after one of the vessels encountered a mechanical problem and drifted into Iranian territorial waters in the Persian Gulf.

A senior defense official said Iran has pledged to release the troops, but McCain seized on the omission as evidence that Obama is more concerned with shaping his legacy than solving challenges at home and abroad.

"Ten American sailors have been taken into custody in Iran," he said in a statement after the address. "But President Obama completely omitted this latest example of Iran's provocative behavior so as not to interfere with his delusional talking points about his dangerous nuclear deal with Iran."

Citing the ISIS-inspired shootings in Paris and San Bernardino, McCain said the terrorist group's threat to "our homeland is real." He also called for "a concrete strategy" to deal with such challenges as the ongoing civil war in Syria that has displaced millions of people and triggered a refugee crisis in Europe, Russian aggression in Eastern Europe and the recent nuclear test by North Korea.

"The murderous Assad regime is still barrel-bombing the Syrian people and fanning the flames of extremism and sectarianism that gave rise to ISIL," he said. "Nearly 10,000 Americans are still in harms' way in Afghanistan. Russia still occupies Crimea and is destabilizing Ukraine. North Korea just conducted its third nuclear test under this Administration. Yet these topics barely earned a mention in tonight's address, if at all."

--Brendan McGarry can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.

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