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Obama Warns Against 'False Promises' To Wipe Out Terrorism

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks on counterterrorism at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida on December 6.
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks on counterterrorism at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida on December 6.

U.S. President Barack Obama warned that the United States will not be able to wipe out terrorism through increased military might in a veiled shot at his successor Donald Trump.

In his final speech on counterterrorism as president on December 6, Obama said that, while his administration has decapitated Al-Qaeda, making it "a shadow of its former self," and put the Islamic State (IS) group on the defensive, he believes terrorism will remain a threat to the United States for years to come.

"Rather than offer false promises that we can eliminate terrorism by dropping more bombs or deploying more and more troops or fencing ourselves off from the rest of the world, we have to take a long view of the terrorist threat and we have to pursue a smart strategy that can be sustained," Obama said at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida.

Obama argued that terrorists "don't pose an existential threat" to the United States, but because militants have infiltrated many nations outside the Middle East and gained sympathizers in the West, the battle against them is unlikely to end with a "clearly defined victory."

Obama will turn over the White House on January 20 to Republican President-elect Trump, who has been sharply critical of his approach to fighting terrorism.

Trump called Obama and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton "co-founders" of IS during the presidential campaign, blaming them for leaving a vacuum after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011 that allowed the group to form and quickly take over large swaths of territory.

Trump has said little about how he will combat extremist groups, arguing that ambiguity and unpredictability are assets that deny the enemy a chance to plan ahead. Still, all signs suggest he'll pursue a more muscular, military-driven approach, including his selection of hawkish generals to lead his Defense Department and national security team.

The White House said Obama's speech was planned long before Trump won the November 8 election, but the president appeared to take issue with Trump repeatedly in his remarks.

Obama said it was important to adhere to American laws and values and not use the threat of terrorist attacks as an excuse to reinstate waterboarding or impose a religious test on immigrants -- two positions advocated by Trump.

"The whole objective of these terrorists is to scare us into changing who we are and our democracy," Obama said. "We are at our best a nation that has been defined by hope and not fear... We can get these terrorists and stay true to who we are."

Obama won office in 2008 with plans to unwind the U.S. military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan and focus on fighting militant groups that threatened the United States.

Obama said his administration's approach of providing support to local partners and not undertaking massive ground invasions has been effective and is making progress at defeating Al-Qaeda and taking back territory from IS in Iraq.

After seeking in 2014 to establish a "caliphate" straddling Iraq and Syria, IS has now lost "more than half" its territory, Obama said.

"[IS] 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," he said.

Critics say that while U.S. and Iraqi forces have made progress this year in rolling back IS gains in Iraq, Obama's hands-off approach has backfired in Syria, where covert U.S. backing of a few rebel groups has failed to either dislodge the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or significantly beat back IS territorial gains there.

Trump has criticized Obama for backing rebel groups in Syria who he said may be no better than than Assad at upholding human rights.

In a speech in North Carolina late on December 6 that appeared to rebut Obama's remarks, Trump declared that "we will stop racing to topple foreign regimes that we know nothing about, that we shouldn't be involved with. Instead our focus must be on defeating terrorism and destroying [IS], and we will."

Trump said his goal in building up U.S. forces is to promote global peace and stability through military strength.

"I will only engage the use of military forces when it's in the vital national security interests of the United States," he said. "This destructive cycle of intervention and chaos must finally, folks, come to an end."

With reporting by AP, AFP, Reuters, and dpa

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