A pensive President Obama with members of his foreign policy team during a recent meeting between U.S. and Turkish officials in Paris. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)
A top White House official agreed Friday with Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush that Donald Trump’s proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the United States is weakening the U.S. fight against the so-called Islamic State.
“We have an over-60-country coalition fighting [the Islamic State], with a substantial number of Muslim-majority fighters who are absolutely essential to succeeding in that effort,” said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser to President Obama.
Rhodes spoke in answer to a question at a lunch with journalists hosted by Bloomberg News about how much the White House planned to respond to Trump’s rhetoric in the coming weeks. Trump leads national polling in the Republican presidential primary and in New Hampshire, the second state in the primary process. Trump narrowly trails Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in the first state to vote, Iowa, which caucuses on Feb. 1.
“We reject any rhetoric that stigmatizes Muslim-Americans,” Rhodes said. “Not only is that not representative of who we are, it’s certainly not helpful to the fight against ISIL.” (The Islamic State is also referred to as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, and as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.)
Rhodes’ assessment echoed the critique made by Bush, the former Florida governor, at the sixth Republican debate on Thursday night in North Charleston, S.C.
Bush said that Trump’s idea to keep all Muslims out of the U.S., even temporarily, “makes it impossible to build the coalition necessary to take out ISIS.”
“The Kurds are our strongest allies. They’re Muslim,” Bush said. “You’re not going to even allow them to come to our country? The other Arab countries have a role to play in this. We cannot be the world’s policeman. We can’t do this unilaterally. We have to do this in unison with the Arab world.”
“And sending that signal makes it impossible for us to be serious about taking out ISIS and restoring democracy in Syria,” Bush said.
Trump responded with something of a non sequitur, stating simply: “I want security for this country.”
Rhodes also spoke about what Obama hopes to accomplish during his final year in office in the fight against ISIS. He noted that the Iraqi Army’s retaking of the city of Ramadi just two weeks ago was “an important step for the Iraqi government.”
“It both takes away a significant population center from ISIL but also provides them with a sense of confidence and momentum as they look to Mosul and other parts of Iraq that they need to take back,” Rhodes said.
Rhodes expressed hope that ISIS territory, constituting much of northeast Syria as well as areas straddling the country’s eastern border with Iraq, can be squeezed by the coalition from every direction to retake other cities, such as Mosul and Raqqa.
“I think you can see a pathway to doing that,” Rhodes said. “At which point what you’re dealing with is a large-scale counterterrorism operation, where you have ISIL no longer controlling large swaths of territory, which they depend on to resource themselves, because their resourcing is oil and taxes.”
“And then essentially you have the capabilities — your air power, your special forces and then our partners on the ground — to essentially grind them down and destroy the network as we’ve done with al-Qaida in different places. That’s going to take a longer period of time,” Rhodes said.
“Even if we were able to take some of these bigger chunks of territory back, this is a multiyear effort,” he said. “I think what the president would like to do with his remaining time is essentially put them on that path to defeat, where we have shrunk their space, taken away resources they depend upon and put in place an infrastructure that can just grind them down.”
Rhodes noted that as the anti-ISIS coalition has gained some victories in Iraq, the group has sought to expand into other countries, such as Libya, and also put more effort into launching terrorist attacks in other parts of the world, such as, in recent weeks, Jakarta, Istanbul and Paris.