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President Obama says U.S. troops are in Iraq and Afghanistan to provide support, not for a combat role. The President commented during a CNN town hall. (Sept. 29)
USA TODAY

President Obama fielded some difficult questions on his role as Commander in Chief during a town hall hosted by CNN’s Jake Tapper on Wednesday night.

At one point, Gold Star mother Tina Houchins asked President Obama why he refuses to use the term “radical Islamic terrorist” to describe the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations that have organized attacks against Americans.

“The truth of this matter is that this is an issue that has been sort of manufactured,” Obama said.

Several political opponents, including Republican nominee Donald Trump, have criticized Obama for not using the term radical Islamic terrorism, and have said it indicates the president is soft on terrorism.

Obama said he objects to the term because the U.S. must be careful not to lump “murderers” in with billions of peaceful Muslims around the world. “These are people who kill children, kill Muslims, take sex slaves — there’s no religious rationale that would justify in any way any of the things that they do,” Obama said.

The president linked the phrase to “people aspiring to become president” and the “notion that somehow we’d start having religious tests” to determine who can enter the country and who enjoys protections under the Bill of Rights.

Obama denied Tapper’s suggestion that he was talking about Trump, insisting he was referring to “a number of public figures” who use rhetoric that divides Americans.

“The way we’re going to win this battle is not by betraying our ideals,” he said.

“Call these folks what they are, which is killers and terrorists,” he added.

Here are some of the other highlights from the town hall:

On combating terrorism

Obama said that despite the apparent surge in terror attacks, the number of terrorist incidents worldwide has not substantially increased. It is much harder for terrorist organizations to carry out large-scale attacks, Obama argued. The greatest current danger comes rather from “lone wolf” terrorist actors “because  they’re the most difficult to see coming.”

He said it is critical to dismantle the Islamic State to reduce the appeal of the “poison that they’re feeding people, often times who may have other mental illnesses or be troubled in some way.”

Overall, Obama believes that “the work that this military has done, and the work that our law enforcement has done, has made us significantly safer today than we were when 9/11 happened.”

9/11 bill veto override 

President Obama lamented what he called a “political vote” in Congress to override his veto of a bill that allows the families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia. The vote was based more on lawmakers’ fear of being seen as opposing 9/11 families during an election year, rather than what is good for the country, Obama said.

Obama called the vote a “mistake” and pointed out that both the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Joseph Dunford, and Secretary of Defense Ash Carter opposed the legislation. He feared the law could end up with the unintended consequence of exposing the U.S. to similar legal action.

The limits of military action 

Although the U.S. has “by a mile the greatest military on Earth,” and will always be in a position to defend itself and its allies, there are limits to the effective use of military power, Obama said.

In the case of Syria, Obama says it would take large numbers of troops to “stop a civil war in which both sides are deeply dug in,” and “unless we can get the parties involved to recognize that they are just burning their country to the ground, and get it on a diplomatic and political track, frankly, there’s going to be a limit to what we can do.”

The VA’s failures 

Obama said that the VA’s issues have been building over several presidential administrations. He attributed the bulk of the problems to “a bureaucracy that had gotten overwhelmed.”

“We have actually made progress,” Obama said. “I don’t want to in any way pretend that we’re where we need to be, but we have in fact fired a whole bunch of people who were in charge of some of these facilities.”

He said that 80% of VA patients now feel they are getting timely treatment. “I want that to be 100%, and that requires more work,” he said.

NFL players refusing to stand for the national anthem 

“I believe that us honoring our flag and our anthem is part of what binds us together as a nation,” Obama said. But, “part of what makes this country special is that we respect peoples’ rights to have a different opinion and to make different decisions about how they want to express their concerns.”

Obama said “as long they’re doing it within the law, we can voice our opinion objecting to it, but it’s also their right.”