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Obama: ISIS Is Not an Organization That Can Destroy the United States ...

Obama: ISIS Is Not an Organization That Can Destroy the United States ...

NPR - NPR's wide-ranging interview with President Obama covers his strategy fighting ISIS, the 2016 elections, his legacy and the Paris climate deal.

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 at this point in the 1950s. But Eisenhower is convinced that they are 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. 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?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I tell you, first of all, I wasn't the Supreme Allied Commander helping to defeat Hitler, so 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, and in San Bernardino what we've seen is their ability to proselytize for their perverted brand of Islam and spur small-scale terrorist attacks. And those are very difficult to detect, so it is going to be important for us to be vigilant. We are pounding ISIL's core structure in Syria and Iraq. We have put together a coalition that is increasingly effective. We have seen ISIL lose about 40 percent of its populated territory in the region, and both in terms of homeland security and in terms of our efforts over there, I am confident that we are going to prevail.

But it is also important for us to keep things in perspective, and 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.

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 remain in office is to just make sure that 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 that post-Paris you had a saturation of news about the horrible attack there. And ISIL combines viciousness with very savvy media operations. And as a consequence, if you've 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.

And so I understand why people are concerned about it, and this is a serious situation, but what is important is for people to recognize that the power, the strength of the United States and its allies are not threatened by an organization like this; in the same way that al-Qaida was able to carry out one spectacular attack, we ended up making some significant changes to harden homeland defenses. It then took a while for us to ultimately snuff out core al-Qaida in the FATA, and there are still lingering remnants, but at no point was there ever a sense that in fact it could do catastrophic damage to us.

INSKEEP: You referred to ISIL's sophisticated media operation and also referred to what Americans are seeing in the American media. 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 has 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.

And 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's not enough of a response.

And so part of our goal here is to make sure that people are informed about all the actions that we're taking. But one of the interesting things that you've seen evolve over the last several weeks, including in the debates that are taking place between the Republican candidates, is that those who are critics of our administration response, or the military, the intelligence response that we are currently mounting, when you ask them, well, what would you do instead, they don't have an answer.

And the reason they don't have an answer is because the truth is that the approach that we are taking is one that's based on the best counsel and best advice of our top military, top intelligence, top diplomatic teams. And we are going after ISIL effectively. We are going after them hard. And we are confident that we are going to prevail.

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