President Obama vowed Sunday that the U.S. and its allies “will not relent” in the fight against the Islamic State, as he returned to Washington from a nine-day trip marked by his embarrassment on the world stage to opposition at home for his plan to resettle Syrian refugees.
“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,” Mr. Obama said at a press conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. “We will take back land that they are currently in. We will cut off their financing. We will hunt down their leadership. We will dismantle their networks and their supply lines, and we will ultimately destroy them.”
After a week in which Islamist terrorists waged horrific attacks in Paris, Beirut and Mali, spreading fear of more terrorism in the West, Mr. Obama will host French President Francois Hollande at the White House on Tuesday to discuss ways to bolster the international coalition fighting the Islamic State.
Mr. Hollande, who has urged the U.S. and Russia to join forces against the militant group in Syria, then heads to Moscow for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Mr. Obama said Mr. Putin needs to make a “strategic adjustment” and drop Russia’s military support for Syrian President Bashar Assad, saying the civil war that has allowed the Islamic State to grow stronger can’t be stopped until Mr. Assad leaves office.
“It will not work to keep him in power,” Mr. Obama said. “We can’t stop the fighting.”
Referring to the Islamic State’s downing of a Russian passenger plane in Egypt on Oct. 31 that killed all 224 aboard, Mr. Obama said the attack should give Mr. Putin even more reason to align his forces with the U.S.
“He needs to go after the people who killed Russian citizens,” the president said.
Mr. Obama’s trip to Turkey, the Philippines and Malaysia was intended to focus largely on economic issues. But it became dominated by fresh concerns about global terrorism, starting with the attacks in Paris that killed 130 people the day before Mr. Obama started his travels.
The attacks heightened concern about Mr. Obama’s plan to resettle 10,000 refugees from Syria next year, with a bipartisan House majority voting last week to delay the program until the administration addresses security concerns. The majority of governors say they won’t accept the refugees.
Mr. Obama, who displayed enormous frustration at international summits about the anti-refugee debate unfolding at home, lashed out again Sunday against “panic” and fears that he said were being exploited by Republican presidential candidates such as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz to score political points.
“We will not give in to fear, or start turning on each other, or treating some people differently because of religion or race or background,” Mr. Obama said. “That’s precisely what terrorists like ISIL want, because, ultimately, that’s the only way that they can win,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
At one point during his trip, seemingly aware that his presidential megaphone was being muffled by the difference in time zones, Mr. Obama said of the anti-refugee rhetoric: “It needs to stop because the world is watching.”
The debate over accepting Syrian refugees, taking place while Mr. Obama was meeting with other world leaders, showed Mr. Obama distressed instead of in charge, said James Jay Carafano, a national security specialist at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
“Difficulties in handling the Syrian refugees further undercut the president’s narrative that, when it comes to the war on terrorism, the White House has everything under control,” Mr. Carafano told The Washington Times. “Crushing al Qaeda and withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan were supposed to be the signature achievements of Obama’s legacy. Now it’s all falling apart.”
The president met with refugees Saturday at a shelter in Malaysia to call attention to the need for all nations to contribute humanitarian aid and open their countries to displaced people.
Before the event White House Deputy National Security adviser Ben Rhodes said the opposition in the U.S. to the Syrian refugees “absolutely” undermined Mr. Obama’s message.
“Part of America’s leadership in getting other countries to do their part is that we do our own,” Mr. Rhodes told reporters. “And we set back our own leadership in the world if we’re not doing the very thing that we want other countries to do. We can’t say to other countries, ‘You need to take in refugees; you need to take your fair share, but we’re going to slam the door’.”
Mr. Obama didn’t refer to any Republicans by name Sunday, but said he was responding to “very specific” proposals to allow Christian Syrian refugees into the U.S. but not Muslims.
Mr. Cruz has suggested that Christian refugees be allowed to emigrate after security vettings, but Muslims should be resettled in other Middle Eastern countries, and Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump has said he would be open to a national registry for Muslims.
The president said such divisions would give the Islamic State a powerful recruiting tool.
“That’s the very nature of terrorism — they can’t beat us on the battlefield, so they try to terrorize us into being afraid, into changing our patterns of behavior, into panicking, into abandoning our allies and partners, into retreating from the world,” Mr. Obama said. “As president, I will not let that happen. Prejudice and discrimination helps [the Islamic State] and undermines our national security.”
Mr. Cruz said the U.S. does far more than any other nation to provide humanitarian aid.
“I get tired of President Obama and Hillary Clinton lecturing the American people that we are somehow ungenerous when we are providing for these people, but we don’t want to risk the safety of our children here at home,” he said at a campaign event late last week.
The House passed legislation last week essentially blocking Syrian and Iraqi refugees from entering the U.S. unless the administration certifies that each refugee is not a security threat. Forty-seven Democrats abandoned the president in voting for the legislation, giving the House a veto-proof majority, although prospects in the Senate are less certain.
Mr. Obama has focused his frustration on Republicans throughout the trip but wouldn’t include Democratic lawmakers in his criticism when specifically asked about them on Sunday. He said the “overwhelming majority” of Americans know that the U.S. is carefully screening refugees who apply to enter the country.
But a Washington Post/ABC News poll released Friday found that 54 percent of respondents oppose taking in the refugees, and 52 percent said they’re not confident in the American screening process to weed out possible terrorists.
At the refugee center in Malaysia, Mr. Obama said he will not be deterred by the opposition to his plan to accept displaced Syrians.
“As long as I’m president, we’re going to keep on stepping up and making sure that America remains as it has always been: a place where people who, in other parts of the world, are subject to discrimination or violence, that they have in America a friend and a place of refuge,” Mr. Obama said. “We have shown that we can welcome refugees and ensure our security — that there’s no contradiction.”
He said the children he met at the shelter are “indistinguishable from any child in America.”
“The notion that somehow we would be fearful of them, that our politics would somehow leave them to turn our sights away from their plight, is not representative of the best of who we are,” Mr. Obama said.
The talks with Mr. Hollande about a more robust military coalition to defeat the Islamic State are coming amid parallel negotiations in Europe about a diplomatic solution to end Syria’s civil war. The violence has killed more than 250,000 people over four years and displaced millions, prompting a refugee crisis.
Foreign ministers from about 20 nations agreed last week on a plan that sets a Jan. 1 deadline for the start of negotiations between Mr. Assad’s government and opposition groups, and the establishment of a transitional government within six months.
Rep. Martha McSally, Arizona Republican and an Air Force veteran, criticized Mr. Obama for lacking a strategy to deal with the Islamic State.
“We’re calling on the administration to step up, provide global leadership and put together a coherent and aggressive strategy to defeat ISIS,” she said Saturday in the weekly GOP address. “The world is waiting for America’s resolve and leadership — and a comprehensive strategy to win.”
Mr. Obama bristled at Congress for moving rapidly to stop his refugee program without acting this year on a new authorization for military force against the Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq.
“I’ve been waiting for a year and a half, or more, for legislation that would authorize the military activities that we’re carrying out in Syria as we speak, and have not been able to get anything out of Congress,” he said last week. “And now, suddenly, they’re able to rush in, in a day or two, to solve the threat of widows and orphans and others who are fleeing a war-torn land, and that’s their most constructive contribution to the effort against ISIL? That doesn’t sound right to me. And I suspect it won’t sound right to the American people.”