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White House Pushes Back Against Criticism Of ISIS Strategy


Today, the White House pushed back against criticism of its ISIS strategy. Aids to the president reject the notion that President Obama unveiled nothing new in his Oval Office address last night. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is at the White House and joins us now. Hey there, Mara.


CORNISH: So what exactly is the White House saying today?

LIASSON: Well, they - first of all, the goal of the president's speech wasn't necessarily to unveil a whole new strategy. It was to try to reassure a jittery public to show them that the president understands their fear and to correct that dismissive tone the president struck shortly after the attacks in Paris. He wanted to explain his strategy against ISIS, which the White House doesn't believe many people know about in the first place.

Now, to the extent that strategy does have new elements to deal with this new threat - homegrown, self-radicalized terrorist threats, there are two elements of that. One is to deny ISIS online space - the ability to recruit and inspire on the Internet. And president Obama has called ISIS a bunch of killers with good social media. The problem is that although the White House has had cyber security summits with high-tech executives, they're not actually demanding that tech companies like Twitter and Facebook shut down chat rooms or websites, so that is still a work in progress.

The second new element is a much sharper call to Muslim leaders in the U.S. and elsewhere to counter the violent ideology of ISIS. Last night, the president asked them to do it much more forcefully than they have so far. He said ISIS's ideology is a real problem Muslims must confront without excuse. But again, that's not something that the administration can make happen by itself.

CORNISH: And Mara, in the Oval Office, President Obama also said, quote, "we have to work together to address the threat of ISIS and terrorism." But do you get a sense that's actually happening given the criticism?

LIASSON: It certainly is not. You know, there's often a moment of national unity after a terrorist attack, and certainly that was true after 9/11. But we are in the midst of a presidential campaign, and the criticism from Republicans from Capitol Hill to the campaign trail was very, very harsh. They say he has no new strategy; he's weak; he isn't willing to call the enemy radical Islam.

But when you scratch below the surface, although the Republicans all say they want to put troops on the ground in the Middle East, they say they should be Arab nations troops with one exception - Lindsey Graham. They haven't been willing to say how many troops they're willing to put in or if they're willing to reoccupy Iraq or Syria. So there's not a lot of - different strategically. Although, the candidates who are senators have certainly rejected the president's call to ban people who are on the terrorist no-fly list from purchasing guns in the United States.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, Donald Trump, of course, came out today, actually, with a new proposal.


DONALD TRUMP: Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.

LIASSON: Now, Trump, of course, has been the most specific of all the candidates in terms of what he would do differently than the president on ISIS. He's called for shutting down mosques, registering Muslims, barring Syrian refugees. And President Obama, in his address on Sunday, has rejected any proposals that Muslim Americans be treated differently. He says that kind of divisiveness would betray our values and play right into the hands of ISIS.

CORNISH: So let's turn back to the Democratic candidates - right? - specifically the president's former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton 'cause she's actually spoken out about this now, right?

LIASSON: She has spoken out about it, and she is the one with the most to lose politically here. On Sunday night, just hours before the president gave his speech, she gave a long speech about the terrorist threat at the Brookings Institution in Washington. She called for high-tech companies who host websites and chat rooms to shut them down. She said she wanted to deny the radical jihadists virtual territory. She called ISIS the most effective recruiter in the world. And I think that speech showed how much foreign policy has now moved to the top of the list of issues in the 2016 election and how much peril Hillary Clinton faces because polls show the public has lost confident in the - confidence in the president's ability to handle the terrorist threat. She was his secretary of state. And if voters don't feel the Obama administration can keep them safe, it's going to be very hard for her to escape that indictment. And the Republicans are already running full tilt against the Obama-Clinton administration.

CORNISH: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, thanks.

LIASSON: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.