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.  

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