Obama Defends Record as Commander-in-Chief

President Barack Obama listens to the National Anthem backstage before making remarks at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., Dec. 6, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
President Barack Obama listens to the National Anthem backstage before making remarks at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., Dec. 6, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama defended his record as commander-in-chief Tuesday against the pledges of President-elect Donald Trump to reverse much of his national security and counter-terror legacy.

Obama, who came to office in 2009 with expectations of ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was candid in acknowledging that the goal of a United States at peace would be the task of another administration.

"On Jan. 20, I will become the first president of the United States to serve two full terms during a time of war," Obama told U.S. Special Operations and Central Command troops at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida.

"For eight years that I've been in office, there has not been a day when a terrorist organization or some radicalized individual was not plotting to kill Americans," Obama said.

The president told the troops that the threat has required him to send them "in harm's way" on constant deployments and he warned that "the threat will endure" well beyond his presidency.

For their continued sacrifice, Obama said, "It has been the greatest honor of my life to serve as your commander-in-chief."

In what was billed as his last major address on defense issues, Obama said he wanted to "talk about the foundation that we will leave for the next administration."

If adhered to, the foundation was there to achieve stability in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, while defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and limiting the ability of ISIS and other terror groups to threaten and influence attacks on the homeland, Obama said

Trump's name was never mentioned, but much of the address appeared aimed at the president-elect, who in a speech later in the day formally announced retired Marine Gen. James Mattis as his nominee for secretary of defense.

The rule of law must be preserved in the U.S. way of war, Obama said, as he argued against the re-introduction of "enhanced interrogation techniques" such as waterboarding.

Obama also renewed his calls against "stigmatizing Muslims" and for shuttering the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, saying that U.S. courts and prisons were best equipped to deal with terror suspects.

"Rather than offer false promises that we can eliminate terrorism by dropping more bombs, or deploying more and more troops, or by fencing ourselves off from the rest of the world, we have to take a long view of the terrorist threat," Obama told troops gathered in an airplane hangar. "We have to pursue a smart strategy that can be sustained."

Trump and Mattis have both pilloried Obama's record as commander-in-chief.

Trump has called Obama's national security policies a "disaster," and Mattis, in a speech last spring to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that Obama was leaving the next president a "mess."

"The bottom line on the American situation is quite clear," Mattis said. "The next president is going to inherit a mess. That's probably the most diplomatic word you can use for it."

Trump made a surprise announcement of the Mattis choice last week.

Throughout his term, Obama has been adamantly opposed on nearly every defense issue by congressional Republicans, and the opposition continued Tuesday after his speech at MacDill.

Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, quickly issued a statement excoriating Obama's record.

"President Obama's speech was nothing more than a feeble attempt to evade the harsh judgment of history," the senator said. Obama will be leaving behind "emboldened enemies" and "dispirited allies," he added. "No rhetorical conceit will alter history's verdict."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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