President Obama’s rising indignation at opponents of his open-door Syrian refugee policy is all the more striking because a decade ago he was one of those opponents, chastising then-President George W. Bush for trying to speed through a deal to transfer operations of major U.S. ports to a company from a predominantly Muslim country.
Then-Sen. Obama accused Mr. Bush of ignoring security concerns in pushing the Dubai Ports deal, and Mr. Bush complained that his critics were really being anti-Muslim — just as Mr. Obama, responding to security worries over his Syrian program, now accuses critics of thinly veiled Islamophobia.
And Mr. Obama on Wednesday issued a stern veto threat, just as Mr. Bush did in 2006, telling Congress to butt out of a process to vet potential Syrian refugees that he says is already working and doesn’t need meddling from Capitol Hill.
“Given the lives at stake and the critical importance to our partners in the Middle East and Europe of American leadership in addressing the Syrian refugee crisis, if the president were presented with [legislation], he would veto the bill,” the White House said in a message to Congress.
The House is slated to vote Thursday on a measure that would require the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and the nation’s intelligence chiefs to sign off on every one of the 10,000 Syrian refugees Mr. Obama wants to bring into the U.S. this fiscal year.
Last week’s terrorist attack in Paris has raised the stakes on the refugees, with one of the suicide bombers suspected of gaining entry to the European Union by mingling with the hordes fleeing Syria’s brutal civil war, landing on an island in Greece with a false Syrian passport and using his refugee status to travel to France.
Republicans say they fear a similar attack here, pointing to statements from the Islamic State that the jihadi group wants to use the refugee program to perpetrate attacks on the U.S. And they say the FBI has admitted it can’t be sure it can verify the identity of refugees because it doesn’t have access to records on the ground in Syria to check applicants’ stories.
Fears were stoked again Wednesday when police in Honduras detained five Syrian men they said were using stolen Greek passports and were trying to reach the U.S., according to press reports out of the Central American country.
A new poll, meanwhile, showed a sizable majority of Americans want to stop the resettlement of Syrian refugees. The Bloomberg Politics national poll found just 28 percent of voters wanted to keep the program intact, while 53 percent favor a total freeze and another 11 percent would accept only Christian refugees but exclude Muslims.
Mr. Obama has called that sort of picking and choosing “shameful,” and accused his critics of alienating Muslims and feeding into the narrative Islamic State is pushing of a war between Islam and the West.
It’s similar to the argument Mr. Bush used in 2006 when he faced criticism over approving a deal to allow Dubai Ports World, a company based in the United Arab Emirates, to run operations at major U.S. ports. Five years removed from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and at a time when the U.S. was struggling to quell sectarian violence in Iraq, the port deal drew vehement bipartisan opposition on Capitol Hill.
“I cannot think of a more potent recruitment tool for [the Islamic State] than some of the rhetoric that’s been coming out of here during the course of this debate,” Mr. Obama said Wednesday while traveling overseas at a summit in Manila in the Philippines.
Major shift for Obama
It’s a major change from early 2006, when Mr. Obama, then a first-term Illinois senator contemplating a run for the White House, complained that Mr. Bush had skipped key security checks in approving the port deal, and was going too far in questioning critics’ racial motives.
“President Bush has dismissed criticism of this deal as being either politically or racially motivated. This reaction misses the essential point. Clearly, more time should have been spent investigating this transaction and consulting with homeland security experts and local officials about its potential implications for our national security,” Mr. Obama said in a letter to constituents at the time.
The White House did not respond to requests for comment on Mr. Obama’s juxtaposition, but Bush administration officials found the reversal amusing.
“It’s ironic that President Obama is taking a position that is totally at odds with one he had just nine years ago when George Bush was in office. And he’s even using the same rhetoric that President Bush deployed against his critics,” said Matt Latimer, a former Bush speechwriter.
Mr. Obama this week has tried to rally refugee and immigrant rights advocates to his defense, saying the U.S. has a moral obligation to take some of the millions of refugees who have fled a brutal civil war in Syria that the president has been unable to stop.
He says that the current U.S. process for reviewing Syrian refugees is the strictest in the world, involving an in-person interview with Homeland Security and a check through U.S. government databases and whatever overseas resources are available.
But given the chaos in Syria and the expanding terrorist reach of Islamic State, it’s those overseas resources that are in question now.
FBI Director James B. Comey has said there are “gaps” in the vetting procedures, because the U.S. doesn’t have access to Syrian databases, nor can it easily get to the neighborhoods to check background stories on the ground.
Administration officials say they make the best decisions with the information they’ve got, and the White House said that none of the 2,174 Syrian refugees who have been admitted to the U.S. since 2001 have been “arrested or deported on terrorism-related grounds.”
Mr. Obama is talking about boosting that number fivefold in the current year alone.
The House bill would not stop refugees, but would require Mr. Comey, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper to sign off on each one.
The bill’s authors said the goal is to bring accountability so people know they are on the line when making the decisions.
“It puts the responsibility on them,” said House Committee on Homeland Security Chairman Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican. “This bill will not allow any refugee in until we’re convinced the vetting process and the background checks are done sufficiently to protect the American people.”
The bill does not go far enough for some conservatives, who said they want to see a complete halt of the refugee program, and who criticized GOP leaders for allowing it to continue at all. At least 31 states, virtually all with Republican governors, have also said they would not accept Syrian refugees under the current federal program.
The White House, though, said actually certifying each refugee’s security checks was “untenable.”
“This legislation would introduce unnecessary and impractical requirements that would unacceptably hamper our efforts to assist some of the most vulnerable people in the world, many of whom are victims of terrorism, and would undermine our partners in the Middle East and Europe in addressing the Syrian refugee crisis,” the White House said in its veto threat.
• Dave Boyer and Seth McLaughlin contributed to this article.