At summit, Obama to defend slow-and-steady strategy on Islamic State

President Obama says the summit of Southeast Asian nations in Malaysia this weekend will focus on countering Islamic State extremists.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and President Obama met Friday in Kuala Lumpur.

President Obama says the summit of Southeast Asian nations he’s attending in Malaysia this weekend will focus on countering Islamist extremism in the wake of the Islamic State’s attacks in Paris last week.

But don’t expect announcements of redoubled military actions to thwart Islamic State (IS) militants in Syria and Iraq, or tough new security measures aimed at halting what many Americans suddenly see as a rising and imminent threat.

Instead, Mr. Obama will use his time in a Muslim-majority country that has prospered while keeping Islamist extremism in check to highlight what he sees that countries like Malaysia are doing right.

“Malaysia is part of the coalition to fight [IS] and can be extraordinarily helpful on issues like  countering the destructive and  perverse narrative that’s developed,” Obama said Friday after meeting with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.

At the same time, Obama is likely to continue touting his preferred approach of a long-haul strategy against IS – what he calls a “multi-year task” – focused on helping countries on the front lines of the battle against Islamist extremism while avoiding actions that he believes would only feed into the IS vision of an apocalyptic war with the West.

Politics back home has taken a turn that Obama openly disdains. He compared a House vote this week that would halt the entry into the US of Syrian and Iraqi refugees to a “[descent] into fear and panic.” As a result, the president has found himself extolling American “values” not  just to the countries he’s visiting on a nine-day trip focused on Asia, but to Americans as well.

Rather than trumpeting how American leadership is back in the Asian-Pacific region with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade deal among 12 Pacific Rim nations, Obama has had to spend much of his media time defending his strategy to battle IS against critics and reminding Americans that slamming the nation’s door on “widows and children” is “not who we are.”

Obama will have another opportunity to defend his slow-and-steady anti-IS strategy when he returns to Washington and hosts French President François Hollande at the White House Tuesday. But critics of his approach have not held back and have only intensified their expressions of dismay after what many saw as Obama’s weak and spiritless reaction to the Paris  attacks.

“As long as our strategy in Syria is containment, more and more and more of [these terrorist actions like the Paris attacks] are going  to  occur,” Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told CNN Friday while on a stop in Paris to meet with French and US counterterrorism officials. “I think people are waking  up to that…everyone understands that collectively we’ve got  to do something far more robust.”

The Tennessee Republican said of the effort to destroy IS that “the only way for it to be successful is with US leadership,” but he lamented that what is lacking is the “executive  decision” to put the US in the  lead and to  move beyond containment to destruction of IS.

In Malaysia, Obama appeared to hold firm to his conviction that in order to prevent the battle with IS from becoming a crusade, Muslim countries will have to lead the charge and make the fight to defeat Islamist extremism their own. The US and Malaysia agreed on a number of counterterrorism measures, but Obama seemed eager after meeting with Mr. Najib to cede the spotlight to his host and to Malaysia’s plans for countering Islamist extremist ideology.

“It is important for us to present the authentic Islam,” Najib told reporters after meeting with Obama. Calling IS an “evil” that is “against Islam” and a “perversion” of it, the Malaysian leader said security measures would not be enough to end the extremist threat and that sustained counter-propaganda efforts are critical.

Malaysia was not taking any chances in the short term, deploying thousands of soldiers to assist thousands of police officers to secure the weekend summit, which is drawing leaders from countries including Russia and China to the center of Kuala Lumpur.

But for the long-term domestic battle with Islamist extremism, Najib said his country is developing a “messaging center” to counter radical  ideology and promote “authentic” Muslim thinking using social media and other means of reaching susceptible minds.  

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.