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Did Obama Achieve Last Year's National Security Commitments?


National security is likely to be a major topic tonight when president Obama delivers his final State of the Union address. It's a sensitive subject after grisly attacks in the U.S. and abroad. We're going to listen to some of what the president had to say on this topic in last year's State of the Union. Joining me now to talk about last year's speech and what has happened since then is NPR's national security correspondent David Welna. Hey, David.


SHAPIRO: The president has made ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan a centerpiece of his national security agenda. What was his take a year ago on the progress there?

WELNA: In a word - excellent. Barely two minutes into last year's address, president Obama, in effect, declared a mission accomplished in Afghanistan.


BARACK OBAMA: Tonight, for the first time since 9/11, our combat mission in Afghanistan is over.

SHAPIRO: Over - a definitive word. Has the outcome actually been so definitive?

WELNA: Well, just as President Bush spoke too soon declaring mission accomplished in Iraq, I think Obama may have done the same with Afghanistan. He promised to withdraw half of the 9,800 U.S. troops there by the end of last year. Instead, he left troop levels unchanged. And while those forces are said to be on a train-and-assist mission, some continue to engage in combat, including a U.S. airstrike that mistakenly killed 42 civilians at a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Northern Afghanistan.

SHAPIRO: And how about Iraq, where, as we know, ISIS is controlling part of the country?

WELNA: Yes. U.S. troops were pulled out from there a few years ago, but more than 3,500 are now back in Iraq, where the U.S. is also carrying out daily airstrikes. It's part of the new war the president's launched against the Islamic State both within Iraq and Syria. Here's his assessment of that effort last year.


OBAMA: In Iraq and Syria, American leadership, including our military power, is stopping ISIL's advance.

WELNA: And the president could point now to some recent battlefield gains against the Islamic State, but his efforts to get other Arab nations to join that fight have largely been fruitless, as was an attempt to stand up a moderate rebel force in Syria. Obama's also failed so far to get Congress to approve a new authorization for the use of military force. Although, GOP leaders lately seem to be rethinking that.

SHAPIRO: Another major development in Syria since president Obama's last State of the Union address is Russian involvement. Russia's doing airstrikes in Syria. Any indication when you look at the last address this time last year that the president saw that coming?

WELNA: Not at all. Russia's aggression in Ukraine was the big concern back then. Here's what he said.


OBAMA: Today, it is American that stands strong and united with our allies while Russia is isolated with its economy in tatters. That's how America leads - not with bluster but with persistent, steady resolve.

SHAPIRO: OK, David, what can the president (laughter) point to tonight to show that this kind of low key approach to using U.S. power has worked?

WELNA: Well, he certainly could tout the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba, which is something he promised in last year's State of the Union.


OBAMA: When what you're doing doesn't work for 50 years, it's time to try something new.


SHAPIRO: OK, so Cuba seems to have worked - anywhere else?

WELNA: Well, Iran - an agreement was reached to lift sanctions on Iran in exchange for a downsizing of that country's nuclear program. Although, that deal was not at all certain when the president alluded to it last year.


OBAMA: Between now and this spring, we have a chance to negotiate a comprehensive agreement that prevents a nuclear-armed Iran, secures America and our allies, including Israel, while avoiding yet another Middle East conflict.

SHAPIRO: Still no deal, though, to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, which is feels like he's talked about in every State of the Union address for the last eight years.

WELNA: That's right, despite the president's vow to do so. Here's the president again last year.


OBAMA: Since I've been president, we've worked responsibly to cut the population of Gitmo in half. Now it is time to finish the job, and I will not relent in my determination to shut it down. It is not who we are. It's time to close Gitmo.


WELNA: Since then, two dozen men have been transferred out of Guantanamo, and that leaves just over a hundred still there. It'll be interesting to hear what the president might say tonight about how he'd close that facility in the year that he has left in office. His chief of staff says Obama will send a plan to Congress soon for closing Gitmo. It would likely entail transferring some of those detainees to the U.S. And that's likely to go nowhere in Congress, so the question becomes, would the president use executive power to shut the place down? He hasn't ruled that out.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's David Welna, who's - covers national security for us. Thanks, David.

WELNA: You're welcome, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.