BUENOS AIRES — President Obama declared Wednesday that defeating the terrorism threat posed by the Islamic State remains his top priority, but he forcefully dismissed calls for his administration to alter its strategy and vowed not to change course “simply because it’s political season.”
At a news conference here, Obama responded to criticism from Republican presidential candidates who, in the wake of the terrorist bombings in Brussels that killed 31 people Tuesday, have said the president has not done enough to combat terrorist organizations. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attacks.
“The notion that we should have surveillance of neighborhoods where Muslims are present — I just left a country that engages in that kind of neighborhood surveillance,” Obama said of his stop in Cuba before arriving in Argentina.
Referring to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who called Tuesday for law enforcement to “patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods,” the president noted that Cruz’s father fled Cuba for the United States. “The notion that we would start down that slippery slope makes no sense,” Obama said. “It’s contrary to who we are, and it’s not going to help us defeat ISIL.”
The Islamic State is also known as ISIL and ISIS.
As he has after past terrorist attacks, including those last year in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., Obama insisted that his strategy on the battlefield against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is showing slow but steady gains, and he cautioned against an overreaction to the attacks in Brussels.
“As our strategy evolves and we see additional opportunities, we will go after them,” Obama said, referring to the Islamic State in his joint news conference with Argentine President Mauricio Macri. “But what we won’t do and should not do is take approaches that are going to be counterproductive. When I hear someone say we should carpet-bomb Iraq or Syria, not only is that inhumane, not only is that contrary to our values, that would likely be an extraordinary mechanism for ISIL to recruit more people willing to die and explode bombs in an airport or in a metro station. That’s not a smart strategy.”
The administration’s approach has focused on airstrikes against Islamic State targets, U.S. assistance for Iraqi troops and Syrian opposition forces, disruptions of terrorist financial networks and a small number of U.S. Special Operations forces in Syria.
But Obama emphasized that the fight against the terrorists is complicated by the challenge of “identifying very small groups of people willing to die themselves and willing to walk into a crowd and detonate a bomb.”
An approach to fighting extremist groups by simply “blowing something up just so we can go home to say we blew something up” is “not a foreign policy,” Obama added. “That’s not a military strategy.”
The president spent his first full day in Argentina on Wednesday meeting with young people as well as Macri, even as he and his advisers were grappling behind the scenes with the aftermath of the attacks in Brussels.
The visit, coming on the heels of Obama’s historic trip to Cuba, was initially aimed at highlighting Argentina’s more U.S.-friendly government and its potential to play a greater role in hemispheric affairs. But the strikes linked to the Islamic State that left dozens dead have detracted from the visit’s overall message.
Obama was criticized by Republicans for his reaction to a series of terrorist attacks in November, after which he traveled to Asia and warned against fear-mongering from his GOP rivals and the media.
Though he again insisted Wednesday that the Islamic State is not an “existential threat” to the United States — “They can’t destroy us. They can’t defeat us. They don’t produce anything,” he said — Obama was mindful to offer empathy to Americans who are fearful in the wake of the gruesome killings at the Brussels airport and a subway station.
“Our hearts bleed. These could be our children. These could be our family members or our friends or our co-workers,” the president said. “And it scares the American people and it horrifies me. I have two young daughters . . . and I want them to have the freedom to move and travel around the world without the possibility that they’d be killed. I understand why this is the top priority of the American people, and I want them to understand this is my top priority as well.”
But he cautioned that “we will not do things that are counterproductive simply because it’s political season. We’re going to be steady, we’re going to be resolute, and ultimately we’re going to be successful.”
Obama arrived Wednesday morning at the Casa Rosada — an ornate, dusky rose building that has served as the office of the Argentine president since the 1860s — to a reception featuring a military band and elaborately dressed guards. He and Macri sat down with their top advisers to discuss issues including foreign investment and regional stability.
After the meeting and news conference, Obama was scheduled to visit the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Cathedral.
Macri’s Nov. 22 election represents an opportunity to improve U.S.-Argentina relations that had deteriorated under his predecessor, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Fernández, who was in power between 2007 and 2015, and her husband, Néstor Kirchner, who occupied the presidency for the preceding four years, were both Peronists and feuded with American officials on issues such as trade and the debt Argentina owed American creditors.
Macri won the fall election with just over 51 percent of the vote, meaning that the electorate remains roughly divided between those seeking a more centrist approach to governing and those backing a more leftist, confrontational stance more in line with nations such as Venezuela.
As a result, Macri aims to pursue an approach that may mesh more closely with U.S. interests but will not be explicitly aligned with the Obama administration.
The Brussels attacks, however, overshadowed other issues during the joint news conference. Obama reiterated concerns about the tenor of the debate on the 2016 campaign trail among Republican candidates Cruz and Donald Trump, who has proposed banning Muslims from entering the country.
“One of the great strengths of the United States, and part of the reason why we have not seen more attacks in the United States, is we have an extraordinarily successful, patriotic, integrated Muslim American community,” Obama said. “They do not feel ghettoized. They do not feel isolated. Their children are our children’s friends going to the same schools.”
Asked whether it was inappropriate for him to attend a baseball game in Havana on Tuesday between the Cuban national team and the Tampa Bay Rays, Obama said that the goal of terrorists, in addition to killing people, is to strike fear into society and disrupt people’s routines.
“It is very important for us to not respond with fear,” Obama said. “A lot of it is also going to be to say: ‘You do not have power over us. We are strong. Our values are right. You offer nothing except death.’ ”
Obama’s visit to Buenos Aires includes several of the usual trappings of his overseas travels, including a state dinner and a town-hall meeting with young people. But since his wife, daughters and mother-in-law are also traveling this time, the first family will spend most of Thursday in Bariloche, a resort area in Patagonia.
While many Argentines have expressed excitement about Obama’s arrival, which marks the first state visit by a sitting U.S. president since Bill Clinton in 1997, the timing of the trip has caused controversy. The last day of Obama’s visit coincides with the 40th anniversary of a U.S.-backed military coup that ushered in the “Dirty War,” in which many critics of the government were tortured and killed.
The administration committed last week to declassify documents related to the Dirty War.
In a news briefing Monday, White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said this week’s trip to Cuba and Argentina highlighted the administration’s effort to put a difficult part of the Western Hemisphere’s past behind it.
“So it’s important to note that we see what we’re doing here in Cuba as fundamentally connected to trying to turn the page in the hemisphere,” he said, “so that we’re clearing the air of history — which is very polluted air in different parts of the hemisphere — and working together to solve problems, because there’s great opportunity here.”
Nakamura reported from Washington.