In a Wednesday press conference during a visit to Argentina, President Barack Obama called out Republican presidential candidate and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz for suggesting amped-up surveillance of Muslim neighbourhoods in the US as a way to prevent terrorist attacks.
Obama’s remarks came a day after terrorists hit Belgium, killing at least 31 people and injuring more than 230 in bombings at a Brussels airport and metro station.
The president emphasised that fighting the terrorist group ISIS (also known as the Islamic State, ISIL, or Daesh) is his “top priority.”
But he criticised Cruz for proposing what he termed a “counterproductive” strategy that might isolate American Muslims.
Cruz said in a Tuesday statement that the police should be empowered to “patrol and secure” neighbourhoods with large Muslim populations “before they become radicalized.”
“I just left a country that engages in that kind of neighbourhood surveillance, which, by the way, the father of Sen. Cruz escaped for America, the land of the free,” Obama said, referencing a historic visit to Cuba earlier in the week.
He added: “The notion that we would start down that slippery slope makes absolutely no sense. It’s contrary to who we are, and it’s not going to help us to defeat ISIL.”
Obama’s visit to Cuba marked the first time in 88 years a sitting US president travelled to the communist country. Cruz’s father fled Cuba for the US in 1957.
Obama also criticised Cruz for saying that the US should “carpet bomb” ISIS in Iraq and Syria, a strategy that military experts have called ineffective and possibly illegal.
“When I hear somebody saying we should ‘carpet bomb’ Iraq or Syria, not only is that inhumane, not only is that contrary to our values, but that would likely be an extraordinary mechanism for ISIL to recruit more people willing to die and explode bombs in an airport or in a metro station,” Obama said. “That’s not a smart strategy.”
Obama noted that what sets the US apart from Europe, which sees higher rates of foreign fighters travelling to join terrorist groups, is that Muslims are better integrated into American society.
One of the great strengths of the United States, and part of the reason why we have not seen more attacks in the United States, is we have an extraordinarily successful, patriotic, integrated Muslim-American community. They do not feel ghettoized, they do not feel isolated. Their children are our children’s friends, going to the same schools. They are our colleagues in our workplaces. They are our men and women in uniform, fighting for our freedom. And so any approach that would single them out or target them for discrimination is not only wrong and un-American, but it also would be counterproductive. Because it would reduce the strength, the antibodies that we have to resist terrorism.
Obama also defended the US strategy for defeating ISIS, saying that US approach has been “continuously to adjust to see what works and what doesn’t.”
“What has been working is the air strikes that we’re taking on their leadership, on their infrastructure, on their financial systems,” he said.
“What has been working is special operators partnering with Iraqi Security Forces and going after leadership networks and couriers and disrupting the connection between their bases in Raqqa and their bases in Mosul,” he continued.
But he acknowledged the challenges of identifying threats in Western countries.
“It’s challenging to find, identify very small groups of people who are willing to die themselves and can walk into a crowd and detonate a bomb,” Obama said. “And my charge to my team is to find every strategy possible to successfully reduce the risk of such terrorist attacks even after we go after their beating heart in places like Iraq and Syria.”
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