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In ISIS Fight, Obama Points To American Power Beyond Military Force


That fight against ISIS threatens to overshadow what would otherwise be a signature achievement for the president - the international climate agreement struck in Paris over the weekend. He pushed hard for that deal and calls it a tribute to American leadership. Many Republicans disagree, arguing that the president has misplaced his priorities. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: TV cameras tagged along when the president visited the Pentagon today. It was the latest in a series of White House moves designed to show Obama is taking ISIS or ISIL seriously.


BARACK OBAMA: We recognize that progress needs to keep coming faster. No one knows that more than the countless Syrians and Iraqis living every day under ISIL's terror as well as the families in San Bernardino and Paris and elsewhere who are grieving the loss of their loved ones.

HORSLEY: Obama has vowed to be both strong and smart in battling ISIS and to draw on every aspect of American power. Philip Seib, who teaches international relations at the University of Southern California, says Obama's view of that power is more expansive than the bombs that can be dropped from a military jet.

PHILIP SEIB: Leadership has to still be muscular, but it has to be really more intellectually muscular as opposed to militarily muscular if you're going to get a response from the rest of the world.

HORSLEY: Seib acknowledges soft power can be a hard sell during a campaign season that favors bumper-sticker simplicity. Obama himself complains many pundits and politicians are too limited in the way they think about U.S. power.


OBAMA: For some reason, too often in Washington, American leadership is defined by whether or not we're sending troops somewhere, and that's the sole definition of leadership.

HORSLEY: Obama was speaking in Paris where leaders of nearly 200 countries gathered to strike an agreement limiting the carbon pollution behind climate change. The president pushed the U.S. to lead the way with new rules governing fuel efficiency and coal-fired power plants. When the rest of the world signed onto the climate deal, Obama said Americans could be proud.


OBAMA: We may not live to see the full realization of our achievement, but that's OK. What matters is that today, we can be more confident that this planet is going to be in better shape for the next generation, and that's what I care about.

HORSLEY: Obama acknowledged it's difficult for politicians to address a problem like climate change because the effects, while severe, are so gradual, they creep up on people. Indeed, Republicans, like Mike Huckabee, mock the president's priorities, arguing Obama should forget climate change and focus on more immediate threats like the Islamic State.


MIKE HUCKABEE: Not to diminish anything about the climate at all, but Mr. President, I believe that most of us would think that a beheading is a far greater threat to an America than a sunburn. I wish he understood that we have a real enemy with Islamic jihadism.

HORSLEY: While Republicans accuse the president of underestimating ISIS, the administration insists its critics make the opposite mistake. Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes recalls when Obama took office, the nation was preoccupied with Iraq and Afghanistan, two countries, he argues, which frankly aren't going to be shaping the 21st century. Obama has pressed to reorient U.S. foreign policy towards fast-growing Asian economies while confronting long-term threats like climate change. Professor Seib says that stubborn focus on the horizon may look better with a few decades of hindsight.

SEIB: Climate change is going to be one of the century's defining issues, and whatever happens to the Islamic State, the relationship with China is still going to be very important.

HORSLEY: Obama shows little sign of redirecting U.S. power at this late stage of his presidency. Ultimately, it'll be up to the next occupant of the White House to decide how American leadership is defined and deployed. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.