ANTALYA, TURKEY: President Barack Obama declared on Monday that his strategy for defeating the Islamic State is working despite last week’s horrific attacks in Paris, forcefully rejecting calls for escalating the use of military force in the Middle East or turning away Syrian refugees at home.
At a sometimes tense news conference at the end of an international summit meeting here, Obama said he would intensify targeted airstrikes and assistance to local ground forces in Syria and Iraq, but it will take time to cripple the terrorist group. He dismissed critics who faulted his approach, accusing them of trying to profit politically from the episode.
“We have the right strategy, and we’re going to see it through,” Obama told reporters before heading to the Philippines and Malaysia for summit meetings there. He said he planned to intensify his current approach but not fundamentally alter it.
“What I do not do is take actions either because it is going to work politically or it is going to somehow, in the abstract, make America look tough or make me look tough.”
Obama grew especially animated in rebuffing suggestions by some Republican presidential candidates, governors and lawmakers that the United States should block entry of Syrian refugees to prevent terrorists from slipping into the country.
“The people who are fleeing Syria are the most harmed by terrorism; they are the most vulnerable as a consequence of civil war and strife,” Obama said. He added: “We do not close our hearts to these victims of such violence and somehow start equating the issue of refugees with the issue of terrorism.”
Without naming him, Obama singled out a comment by former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, one of the Republicans seeking to succeed him, for suggesting the United States focus special attention on Christian refugees. “That’s shameful,” Obama said. “That’s not American. It’s not who we are. We don’t have religious tests to our compassion.”
Obama sounded weary and defensive as he repeatedly rejected criticism of his yearlong strategy in Syria and Iraq to combat the Islamic State, also called ISIS, ISIL or Daesh. Wrapping up a whirlwind 48 hours of diplomacy in this Turkish resort community on the Mediterranean Sea, the president seemed frustrated by being second-guessed.
Pressed several times to explain his resistance to a broader war against the Islamic State, Obama twice chided reporters for asking the same question in slightly different ways.
Each time, he appeared to take pains to navigate a narrow path – expressing his personal outrage at the “terrible and sickening” Paris attacks by calling the Islamic State “the face of evil,” while at the same time standing firm on a strategy that he acknowledged will take time to produce the results sought by the public.
Obama’s aides have been making that case on his behalf since the attacks on Friday. But Monday’s exchange with reporters was the first time the president directly confronted the criticism that his policies failed to stop the carnage in the city and it seemed to weigh on him.
Republicans quickly pounced on the remarks as defeatist. “With his excuse-laden and defensive press conference, President Obama removed any and all doubt that he lacks the resolve or a strategy to defeat and destroy ISIS,” said Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee. “Never before have I seen an American president project such weakness on the global stage.”
Obama said the United States did not receive any concrete indications in advance of the Paris attacks that could have provided early warning to prevent them. “There were no specific mentions of this particular attack that would give us a sense of something that we could provide French authorities, for example, or act on ourselves,” he said.
He said there have been concerns about the danger of Islamic State attacks in the West for more than a year. But he added that “some of it is extraordinarily vague and unspecific, and there’s no clear timetable.”
Obama announced a new agreement between the United States and France to share more intelligence information, saying that new arrangement would “allow our personnel to pass threat information, including on ISIL, to our French partners even more quickly and more often.”
He said the United States was seeking to persuade other allies to engage more deeply in the fight against the Islamic State, and he said the U.S. effort to find more partners on the ground in Syria and Iraq was accelerating.
But he said large numbers of U.S. troops on the ground would repeat what he sees as the mistake of the Iraq invasion of 2003 and would not help solve the terrorism problem around the globe.
“That would be a mistake, not because our military could not march into Mosul or Raqqa or Ramadi and temporarily clear out ISIL, but because we would see a repetition of what we’ve seen before,” Obama said. Victory over terrorist groups, he said, requires local populations to push back “unless we’re prepared to have a permanent occupation of these countries.”
Moreover, he added that sending large-scale ground forces into Syria would set an untenable precedent. “Let’s assume that we were to send 50,000 troops into Syria,” he said. “What happens when there’s a terrorist attack generated from Yemen? Do we then send more troops into there? Or Libya perhaps? Or if there’s a terrorist network that’s operating anywhere else in North Africa or in Southeast Asia?”
Obama rejected the idea that the administration had underestimated the capabilities of the Islamic State, saying that the group’s attacks have not been particularly sophisticated.
“If you have a handful of people who don’t mind dying, they can kill a lot of people,” Obama said. “That’s one of the challenges of terrorism. It’s not their sophistication or the particular weaponry that they possess. But it is the ideology they carry with them and their willingness to die.”
And he insisted that he has not shown any hesitation to act militarily, citing his approval of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and his first-term decision to send tens of thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan. But he said he would not be pressured into “posing” as a tough president by doing things that will not make the situation better to satisfy his critics.
“Some of them seem to think that if I was just more bellicose in expressing what we’re doing, that that would make a difference,” he said. “Because that seems to be the only thing that they’re doing, is talking as if they’re tough.”
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