Stressing that his administration has "been at this for a long time," President Obama launched a forceful defense of his strategy against ISIS in a year-end interview with NPR. He makes "no apologies," he said, for wanting to target terror groups "appropriately and in a way that is consistent with American values."
Speaking with Steve Inskeep, host of Morning Edition, Obama also urged Americans to "keep things in perspective" when it comes to ISIS, though he says he understands "why people are worried."
"This is not an organization that can destroy the United States," he said, nor is it a "huge industrial power" that poses great risks to the U.S. "institutionally or in a systemic way. But they can hurt us, and they can hurt our people and our families."
Here's how he explained why remembering "who we are" will lead to ISIS's defeat:
Obama added that while ISIS, which he refers to as ISIL, should be taken "seriously," domestic terrorism acts have killed at least as many Americans "as those who were promoted by jihadists." Since Sept. 11, 2001, 45 people have been killed in the United States at the hands of Islamist extremist-inspired terrorists, and 48 have been killed in domestic terrorist attacks, according to a count from the New America Foundation.
Though Obama expressed deep confidence in his approach to fighting ISIS, he is facing a country with just as much criticism of that strategy — only 30 percent of Americans surveyed in a recent Gallup Poll approve of his handling of ISIS.
He said he understands where some of that sentiment comes from and that people are legitimately concerned about terrorism — though he says that fear is fueled in part by the media. "If you have been watching television for the last month, all you have been seeing, all you have been hearing about is these guys with masks or black flags who are potentially coming to get you," he said.
He also believes there was a failing on his administration's part in not better informing the public of action that has been taken to fight ISIS.
"So if people haven't seen the fact that in fact 9,000 strikes have been carried out against ISIL, if they don't know that towns like Sinjar that were controlled by ISIL have been taken back, or that a town like Tikrit, that was controlled by ISIL, now has been repopulated by previous residents, then they might feel as if there is not enough of a response," he said.
Obama also addressed the criticism from Republican presidential candidates, who have hit at his strategy frequently and forcefully on the campaign trail and in debates. The president's name came up at least 35 times in last week's Republican debate in relation to national security or ISIS. Diverging from the president, some called for leaving Syria's Bashar Assad in power to protect the country from falling to ISIS, while others pressed for widespread bombing of regions controlled by ISIS. In a year-end news conference last Friday, Obama reiterated that for the sake of stability in the region, he believes Assad must go.
Speaking to NPR, Obama responded to those strategies, saying that more bombs are not the answer. "Well, when you listen to them, though, and you ask, 'Well, what exactly are you talking about?' 'Well, we are going to bomb more,' " he said. "Well, who is it you are going to bomb? Where is it that you are going to bomb? When you talk about something like carpet-bombing, what do you mean?"
"If the suggestion is that we kill tens or hundreds of thousands of innocent Syrians and Iraqis, that is not who we are," the president continued. "That would be a strategy that would have enormous backlash against the United States. It would be terrible for our national security."
The overall criticism from the Republican candidates boils down to a sentiment that Obama isn't showing enough strength against ISIS. At the Republican debate last week, Ted Cruz said, "ISIS is gaining strength because the perception is that they're winning. And President Obama fuels that perception." Marco Rubio blamed the president for "outsourcing" foreign policy.
Obama, as he often has during his presidency, used a long-game defense. The one piece of advice he would leave the next president when it comes to battling ISIS, he said, is that it's "important not just to shoot but to aim."
"It is important in this seat to make sure that you are making your best judgments based on data, intelligence, the information that's coming from your commanders and folks on the ground, and you're not being swayed by politics," Obama said.
Obama did have rare praise, though, for one GOP presidential candidate — Sen. Lindsey Graham, who exited the race Monday:
"What's interesting is that most of the critics have not called for ground forces," he said. "To his credit, I think Lindsey Graham is one of the few who has been at least honest about suggesting 'here is something I would do that the president is not doing.' He doesn't just talk about being louder or sounding tougher in the process."
Listen to more of NPR's interview with President Obama this week on Morning Edition.
STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: President Obama is making two arguments about ISIS. In an NPR interview, he says he is moving to destroy the extremist group. He added the U.S. must, quote, "keep things in perspective." He says ISIS is weaker than some people may fear.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This is not an organization that can destroy the United States. This is not a huge industrial power that can pose great risks to us, institutionally or in a systematic way. But they can hurt us. And they can hurt our people and our families. And so I understand why people are worried.
INSKEEP: And the president acknowledged to us that he has not done enough to reassure the public. We talked about ISIS as one part of a year-ending interview. We were sitting by a White House fireplace. We were in the Cabinet Room on the red carpet where the president commonly meets advisers. Paintings of past presidents hung on the walls, and lessons of history were on my mind as our conversation began.
Thanks for taking the time to talk with us. I appreciate it.
OBAMA: Great to be with you, Steve.
INSKEEP: I have been reading a history of part of the Cold War. Dwight Eisenhower was president. He's meeting his cabinet sometimes in this room where we're sitting. The Soviet Union has emerged as a major nuclear threat. The country is very worried. But Eisenhower is convinced that they're not that strong, that the United States is stronger, that the U.S. will win if we just avoid a huge war. And he decides to try to reassure the public, gives a series of speeches saying, keep your chin up. Everything's fine. Our strategy is working. It's a total failure. The public doesn't believe him.
INSKEEP: He is accused of a failure of leadership. And his approval rating goes down. Are you going through the same experience now with regard to ISIS?
OBAMA: Well, I'll tell you first of all, I wasn't the supreme allied commander helping to defeat Hitler. So...
INSKEEP: He had some credibility.
OBAMA: He had a little credibility that he was working with. But ISIL is also not the Soviet Union. And I think that it is very important for us to understand this is a serious challenge. ISIS is a virulent, nasty organization that has gained a foothold in ungoverned spaces effectively in Syria and parts of western Iraq. We have to take it seriously. They've shown in Paris what they can do in an organized fashion.
INSKEEP: And in San Bernardino, he says, ISIS showed it can inspire small-scale attacks, even in the United States. The president says the U.S. must be vigilant but also that ISIS does not threaten the basic strength of the United States.
OBAMA: The most damage they can do, though, is if they start changing how we live and what our values are. And part of my message over the next 14 months or 13 months that I'm - remain in office, is to just make sure we remember who we are and make sure that our resilience, our values, our unity are maintained. If we do that, then ISIL will be defeated.
INSKEEP: What is the public missing about your strategy? And I say that simply because according to polls, you don't have very much approval for it.
OBAMA: Well, I think what's fair is, is that post-Paris, you had a saturation of news about the horrible attack there. And, you know, ISIL combines viciousness with very savvy media operations. And as a consequence, if you've been watching television for the last month, all you've been seeing, all you've been hearing about is these guys with masks or black flags who are potentially coming to get you.
INSKEEP: Are you suggesting that the media are being played in a sense here?
OBAMA: Look, the media is pursuing ratings. This is a legitimate news story. I think that, you know, it's up to the media to make a determination about how they want to cover things. There is no doubt that the actions of ISIL are designed to amplify their power and the threat that they pose. That helps them recruit. That adds in the twisted thoughts of some young person that they might want to have carry out an action that somehow they're part of a larger movement. And so I think that the American people absorb that, understandably, are of concern. Now, on our side, I think that there is a legitimate criticism of what I've been doing and our administration's been doing in the sense that we haven't, you know, on a regular basis, I think, described all the work that we've been doing for more than a year now to defeat ISIL.
INSKEEP: The president says 9,000 airstrikes have been conducted against ISIS over time. He notes that U.S. allies, especially Kurdish forces, have recaptured much ISIS territory. And he dismisses critics who insist he should be using more force.
OBAMA: When you listen to them, though, and you ask, well, what exactly are you talking about? Well, we're going to bomb more. Well, who is it that you're going to bomb? Where is it that you're going to bomb? When you talk about something like carpet bombing, what do you mean?
INSKEEP: He's referring to Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz. Senator Cruz said he wanted to carpet bomb ISIS. In a talk here on MORNING EDITION, Cruz added it is possible to drop thousands more bombs on Iraq and Syria. He said the U.S. had conducted larger campaigns in past wars. The president responds that excessive bombing - killing many civilians - would provoke a backlash and that it's not, quote, "who we are."
OBAMA: I make no apologies for us wanting to do this appropriately and in a way that is consistent with American values.
INSKEEP: You've acknowledged this requires patience. It can be a slow process. During that slow process, there might be more attacks on the United States. In October, before San Bernardino, a Justice Department official stated that domestic terrorists were a greater threat to the United States than international groups like al-Qaida or ISIS. Do you believe that still now, after San Bernardino and Paris?
OBAMA: I don't know the exact citation that you're referring to. If you just...
INSKEEP: John Carlin on October 14.
OBAMA: If you just look at the numbers, then non-Islamic, non-foreign-motivated terrorist actions have killed at least as many Americans on American soil as those who were promoted by jihadists. But what we have also seen is ISIL evolve, because of the sophistication of their social media, to a point where they may be inspiring more attacks - even if they're self-initiated, even if they don't involve complex planning - than we would have seen two years ago, three years ago, five years ago.
INSKEEP: Leading candidates in both parties have suggested in one way or another that they want to be more active against this threat. What advice would you give whoever you're going to turn this room over to in a year or so?
OBAMA: Well, again, I would just repeat, Steve, that when you really sort through all the rhetoric, the notion more active or a stronger response...
INSKEEP: Hillary Clinton spoke of a no-fly zone.
OBAMA: Well, I was going to say there are basically two things that I've heard people say. One would be, we're just going to bomb more. And that, I would advise, is not a wise course. You bomb ISIL. You're not trying to bomb innocent people. And that requires intelligence and confidence in our military to be able to develop the kinds of targets that we need. We're already doing Special Forces, who are going to help us gather that intelligence and help advise and assist and train local forces so that they can go after ISIL in areas like Raqqah and Mosul. The other new thing that people have suggested would be some variation of a no-fly zone or a safe zone. This is something we've been talking about for three or four years. The challenge there is that ISIL doesn't have an air force. So the damage done there is not against ISIL. It's against the Syrian regime.
INSKEEP: The president says that what would really make a difference is not more force but better diplomacy, an end to Syria's year-long civil war. The United Nations has approved talks starting in January designed to bring Syria's rebels and government onto the same side in the war against ISIS.
OBAMA: But what I would say to my successor is that it is important not just to shoot but to aim. And it is important, in this seat, to make sure that you're making your best judgments based on data, intelligence, the information that's coming from your commanders and folks on the ground and you're not being swayed by politics.
INSKEEP: That's part of our year-end talk with President Obama in the White House Cabinet Room. The talk was on video, which you can find on social media or at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.