KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — President Obama Sunday declared that the United States will win the battle against Islamic extremists such as those who attacked Paris earlier this month, urging the American public not to give in to fear.
But even after three global summits in Turkey, the Philippines and Malaysia, the president had no new strategies for dealing with the so-called Islamic State, and few tangible new commitments from international partners.
“Our coalition will not relent. We will not accept the idea that terrorist assaults on restaurants and theaters and hotels are the new normal, or that we are powerless to stop them,” President Obama told reporters here at the end of a nine-day trip. “After all, that’s precisely what terrorists like ISIL want,” using an alternative acronym for Islamic State.
“Destroying ISIL is not only a realistic goal, we’re going to get it done and we’re going to pursue it with every aspect of American power and with our coalition partners,” Obama said.
It would be “helpful,” he added, if Russian president Vladimir Putin directed his country’s strikes in Syria against the Islamic State, rather than against the rebels who are opposed to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
After all, Obama said, it is the Islamic State that is alleged to have brought down a Russian passenger plane in Egypt last month, killing 224 people. “He needs to go after the people who killed Russia’s citizens,” the president said.
In Asia, Obama’s efforts to forge international progress on trade, climate change and maritime security were largely overshadowed by discussion of the terror attacks in Paris and Mali, and particularly by the increasingly virulent opposition back home in the United States to accepting refugees from the conflicts in the Middle East.
Many Republicans, including presidential candidate Donald Trump, have suggested that letting in refugees from Syria in particular would open the floodgates for terrorists to enter the United States.
This sentiment helped propel a bill through the House of Representatives last week aimed at tightening controls on refugees from Syria and Iraq after Obama pledged to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees to the United States over the coming year. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said the move “reflects our values; this reflects our responsibilities. We cannot and should not wait to act, not when our national security is at stake,” he said.
But Obama Sunday said that giving into fear “wouldn’t just be a betrayal of our values, it would also feed ISIL’s propaganda.”
“Prejudice and discrimination helps ISIL and undermines our national security,” he told reporters before departing for Washington, pledging to “ultimately destroy” the terrorist group. “Even as we do that, we want to make sure that we don’t lose our own values and our own principles. We can all do our part by upholding the values of tolerance and diversity and equality that help keep America strong.”
But even as he has sought to project leadership abroad, the president has struggled to convince Americans that the Islamic State does not pose an immediate threat to the United States.
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll this week found that fears among Americans about terrorist attacks on U.S. soil have risen sharply since the Paris attacks, which killed 130 people. More than half of registered voters opposed accepting refugees from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries, even if they are screened for security, the poll found.
At at each stop on his trip, the president was forced to respond to questions from reporters about his strategy to combat the Islamic State and deal with a flood of Syrian refugees amid new concerns about the ability of radical fighters to infiltrate other countries and plan new attacks.
In the face of sharp criticism from Republicans, and some Democrats, Obama defended his approach and resisted calls to ramp up U.S. military operations in Iraq and Syria or to slow plans to accept more refugees. He chided his critics for reacting with irrational fear that, in his view, risked leading to decisions that would put Americans in further danger by creating the perception of a war between the West and Islam.
The White House has opposed bipartisan legislation approved this week by the House, on a veto-proof margin, aimed at slowing the flow of refugees into the United States. The prospects for the bill in the Senate remains unclear.
Obama has spent the week pressing world leaders to ramp up their commitments to the U.S.-led coalition that is fighting the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. And the president met personally in Turkey with Putin, whose efforts to keep Assad in power has presented a major challenge to Obama’s efforts to remove him and negotiate an end to that nation’s civil war. The administration believes ending the civil war is crucial toward directing a united front to eradicate the Islamic State.
It remained uncertain, however, whether the United States and Russia had made progress toward finding a common solution.
The president has said the campaign against the Islamic State will be a long-term project, one that will outlast his presidency. And the debate over how to deal with the militant group and the Syrian refugees has become a leading issue on the 2016 campaign trail, with Republicans calling Obama weak and naïve.
Obama is due back in Washington early Monday, and he is scheduled to meet with French President Francois Hollande at the White House on Tuesday. The president is scheduled to attend a long-scheduled gathering of world leaders at a climate conference in Paris at the end of the month, where the fight against terror is likely to again assume center stage.