WASHINGTON – US President Barack Obama defended his strategy against Islamic State on Monday, rejecting his critics as bellicose just days after the organization successfully killed scores of civilians in Paris.
His comments, in response to a series of critical questions from reporters at the G20 summit in Antalya, Turkey, were in stark contrast to a speech delivered by President François Hollande in France at the same time. Addressing a rare joint session of the French Parliament in Versailles, Hollande repeated his assertion that the Fifth Republic is at war with a formidable terrorist army.
The United States and its allies have no choice, Obama contends, but to continue down the long and arduous path of rebuilding Syria with Syrian hands, and Iraq with Iraqi hands. The best offense of Western powers, he said, remains a smart use of military power from the air paired with the vigorous collection of intelligence.
Introducing a ground force, Obama argued, would successfully clear Syria’s Raqqa and Iraq’s Mosul – the two largest cities under Islamic State control – of terrorist governance. But it would come at a steep cost, and holding territory could require another decades-long American occupation.
“We have the finest military in the world and the finest military minds in the world,” he said. “It is not just my view, but the view of my closest military and civilian advisers, that [a ground war] would be a mistake.”
The multi-pronged attacks in Paris on Friday, that murdered at least 132 people, demonstrated Islamic State’s serious capabilities, Obama said. The United States did not have any specific intelligence that an attack on the French capital was imminent.
“If you have a handful of people that don’t mind dying, they can kill a lot of people,” he said, describing the challenge to intelligence and security officials. Obama believes the US is better protected against these types of attacks – in part because of its intelligence capabilities, in part because of geography, and in part because of the number of homegrown jihadists in America relative to the swelling number in Europe.
The US, nevertheless, faces new threats every day from Islamic State, its affiliates, and al-Qaida, which still seeks to attack the West more than 14 years after the devastating strikes in New York City and Washington on September 11, 2001.
At least one perpetrator in the Paris attacks entered the European continent in a wave of migrants traveling in through Greece, according to French security officials.
That threat is real – but cannot deter Europe or the US from its “moral duty” to care for legitimate refugees, Obama added.
“The values that we’re fighting against ISIL for,” he said, “are precisely that we don’t discriminate against people because of their faith.”