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Obama Defends Current U.S. Strategy Against ISIS At G-20 Summit

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

President Obama says the terrorist attacks on Paris are a, quote, "terrible and sickening setback in the battle against ISIS." He insists that now is not the time to change course in that battle. Obama was grilled about his strategy today after an international summit meeting in Turkey where the terror attacks and the flow of refugees out of Syria dominated the conversation. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: French warplanes armed with U.S. intelligence pounded ISIS targets in Raqqa, Syria. But despite the stepped up show of force after the Paris attacks, President Obama says the basic outline of the U.S. campaign is not changing.

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BARACK OBAMA: There will be an intensification of the strategy that we put forward, but the strategy that we are putting forward is the strategy that ultimately is going to work.

HORSLEY: Criticism of that strategy is mounting in the aftermath of Friday's bloodbath. Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush is one of many who argue the administration's response to ISIS has been too little too late. Bush spoke Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."

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JEB BUSH: We should declare war and harness all of the power that the United States can bring to bear both diplomatic and military, of course, to be able to take out ISIS. We have the capabilities of doing this. We just haven't shown the will.

HORSLEY: Obama is defending his approach, saying he's already doing most of what his critics suggest.

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OBAMA: Folks want to pop off and have opinions about what they think they would do - present a specific plan.

HORSLEY: One idea Obama does not want to consider is sending a large number of U.S. ground forces into Syria. But Richard Fontaine, the former adviser to Senator John McCain, says there are plenty of steps short of that the president could take.

RICHARD FONTAINE: Very few people are advocating the large-scale deployment of American ground forces, but the United States could deploy spotters to call in airstrikes in Iraq and in Syria which would make our air campaign more effective. It could establish a safe zone to protect civilians and allow the moderate opposition to regroup.

HORSLEY: Fontaine, who's president of the Center for a New American Security, acknowledges enforcing a safe zone would require some ground forces. Though he suggested they could come from Turkey or Jordan rather than the United States. Speaking to reporters, Obama denied he's underestimated the threat posed by ISIS. What makes the group dangerous, he says, is not sophisticated weapons or strategy but rather its murderous ideology.

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OBAMA: If you have a handful of people who don't mind dying, they can kill a lot of people. That's one of the challenges of terrorism.

HORSLEY: Fontaine agrees, warning the Paris attacks are not likely to be the last.

FONTAINE: To me, one of the lessons in what's happened in Paris is not how much it takes to terrorize one of the world's great cities but how little.

HORSLEY: That threat has prompted some governors to resist the placement of Syrian refugees in their states, fearful that a would-be terrorist could use that as cover. Obama wants to take in some 10,000 refugees from Syria over the next 12 months.

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OBAMA: Many of these refugees are the victims of terrorism themselves. That's what they're fleeing. Slamming the door in their faces would be a betrayal of our values.

HORSLEY: Obama was particularly critical of Ted Cruz and others who said the U.S. should admit Christian refugees but not Muslims.

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OBAMA: That's shameful. That's not American. That's not who we are. We don't have religious tests to our compassion.

HORSLEY: Obama argues that U.S. refugee policy should not feed the idea that Christians and Muslims are at war with one another. If we want to be successful at defeating ISIS, he says, that's a good place to start. Scott Horsley, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.