WASHINGTON, Jan. 29, 2014 – While President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech tonight was dominated by domestic concerns, he also addressed national security concerns.
“Tonight, because of the extraordinary troops and civilians who risk and lay down their lives to keep us free, the United States is more secure,” Obama told members of the House and Senate and other government leaders gathered in the House of Representatives chamber.
The president touted his efforts to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When he took office in January 2009, he noted, 180,000 Americans were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, the war in Iraq is over and the war in Afghanistan is entering its final months. All of the troops are out of Iraq, and 60,000 Americans have been withdrawn from Afghanistan, with about 38,000 Americans still serving in the country.
“With Afghan forces now in the lead for their own security, our troops have moved to a support role,” Obama said. “Together with our allies, we will complete our mission there by the end of this year, and America’s longest war will finally be over.”
Next year, the United States will continue to support a unified Afghanistan, he said. “If the Afghan government signs a security agreement that we have negotiated, a small force of Americans could remain in Afghanistan with NATO allies to carry out two narrow missions: training and assisting Afghan forces, and counterterrorism operations to pursue any remnants of al-Qaida,” Obama said. “For while our relationship with Afghanistan will change, one thing will not: our resolve that terrorists do not launch attacks against our country.”
It is still a dangerous world, the president said. “While we have put al-Qaida’s core leadership on a path to defeat, the threat has evolved, as al-Qaida affiliates and other extremists take root in different parts of the world,” he said.
The threat remains in Yemen, Somalia, Iraq and Mali, and the United States must work with allies to disrupt and disable the terror networks. “In Syria, we’ll support the opposition that rejects the agenda of terrorist networks,” the president said. “Here at home, we’ll keep strengthening our defenses, and combat new threats like cyberattacks. And as we reform our defense budget, we have to keep faith with our men and women in uniform, and invest in the capabilities they need to succeed in future missions.”
America must remain vigilant, the president said, and while the American military is the bedrock of security, it does not and cannot act alone. “As commander in chief, I have used force when needed to protect the American people, and I will never hesitate to do so as long as I hold this office,” Obama said. “But I will not send our troops into harm’s way unless it’s truly necessary, nor will I allow our sons and daughters to be mired in open-ended conflicts. We must fight the battles that need to be fought, not those that terrorists prefer from us — large-scale deployments that drain our strength and may ultimately feed extremism.”
The United States will continue to aggressively pursue terrorist networks through more targeted efforts and by building the capacity of foreign partners, Obama said.
The United States must move off a permanent war footing, the president emphasized. “That’s why I’ve imposed prudent limits on the use of drones – for we will not be safer if people abroad believe we strike within their countries without regard for the consequence,” he said. “That’s why, working with this Congress, I will reform our surveillance programs – because the vital work of our intelligence community depends on public confidence, here and abroad, that the privacy of ordinary people is not being violated.”
The president also called on Congress to lift the remaining restrictions on detainee transfers and allow the administration to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. This is needed, Obama said, “because we counter terrorism not just through intelligence and military action, but by remaining true to our constitutional ideals, and setting an example for the rest of the world.”
The president said the diplomatic power of the United States – backed by the threat of force – “is why Syria’s chemical weapons are being eliminated, and we will continue to work with the international community to usher in the future the Syrian people deserve – a future free of dictatorship, terror and fear.”
American diplomacy has halted the progress of Iran’s nuclear program and rolled parts of that program back for the very first time in a decade, the president said.
The United Nations sanctions helped to make this opportunity possible, the president said. “But let me be clear,” he added. “If this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it. For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed. If Iran’s leaders do not seize this opportunity, then I will be the first to call for more sanctions, and stand ready to exercise all options to make sure Iran does not build a nuclear weapon.
“But if Iran’s leaders do seize the chance – we’ll know soon enough – then Iran could take an important step to rejoin the community of nations, and we will have resolved one of the leading security challenges of our time without the risks of war,” he continued.
The president vowed to slash the backlog of disability claims at the Veterans Affairs Department and to continue efforts to help veterans returning to civilian life. “We’ll keep working to help all our veterans translate their skills and leadership into jobs here at home,” he said. “And we all continue to join forces to honor and support our remarkable military families.”