Obama in Argentina: ‘Destroying’ ISIS a top priority

Argentine President Mauricio Macri (R) and U.S. President Barack Obama leave after a joint news conference at the Casa Rosada government house in Buenos Aires, March 23, 2016. © Martin Zabala
Calling Islamic State “vicious killers,” US President Barack Obama vowed to “destroy” the group but urged patience and wisdom in doing so. Questions concerning terrorism in Belgium dominated his visit to Argentina, part of his Latin America “reset” tour.

Arriving from Cuba, Obama met with President Mauricio Macri and addressed reporters in Buenos Aires on Wednesday afternoon. Elected in December of 2015, Macri has been eager to re-establish ties with Washington, which had cooled under President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

Though Argentine journalists were mostly interested in Obama’s pledges to support Macri’s reforms and declassify documents that might shed light on US support for the military junta that ruled Argentina between 1976 and 1983, questions from American reporters focused mainly on Tuesday’s terror attacks in Brussels and criticism that Obama has received from Republican presidential candidates concerning his trip.

“We will also continue to go after ISIL, aggressively, until it is removed from Syria and removed from Iraq, and is finally destroyed.” Obama said. “We can and we will defeat those who threaten the safety and security not only of our own people, but of people all around the world.”

Asked why he had gone to a baseball game in Cuba during the terrorist attacks, Obama repeated the answer he had given to ESPN, explaining that terrorists win when they are given power over people’s lives.

“Groups like ISIL can’t destroy us, they can’t defeat us, they don’t produce anything. They’re not an existential threat to us. They are vicious killers and murderers who’ve perverted one of the world’s great religions,” the US president said. “Even as we are systematic and ruthless in going after them, disrupting their networks, getting their leaders, rolling up their operations, it is very important to us to not respond with fear.”

Part of defeating terror groups is to say, “You do not have power over us,” Obama explained, adding that the US is “on the right side of history.”

Addressing calls from GOP presidential contender Ted Cruz for greater surveillance of Muslims in the US, Obama quipped that he had just left Cuba, a society that engaged in such practices, from which Cruz’s father had fled for America, “the land of the free.”

“One of the great strengths of the US, part of the reason we haven’t seen more attacks, is that we have an extraordinarily successful, patriotic, integrated Muslim-American community. They do not feel ghettoized, they do not feel isolated,” Obama said, adding that any approach singling out or discriminate against Muslims is “not only wrong and un-American, but would be counterproductive.”

The US president acknowledged that his visit came during the 40th anniversary of a military coup that many Argentines believe was backed by Washington. Obama announced that he would pay his respects to the victims of the junta on Thursday, as well as declassify US military and intelligence records from that era. According to Obama, this was meant to be a message not just to Argentina, but to the entire hemisphere, demonstrating that the US intended to rebuild trust that may have been lost in the past.

In 2002, the State Department made public some 4,000 diplomatic cables from that period indicating that the Ford administration, and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in particular, had been supportive of the junta, while the Carter administration took a more reserved stance from 1977 onward.

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According to the Wall Street Journal, Kissinger told his Argentinian counterpart, Admiral César Guzzetti, in a June 1976 cable that, “if there are things that have to be done, you [the junta] should do them quickly.”

“We want you to succeed,” Kissinger added.

The junta branded its opponents “terrorists” and went after both civilian activists and left-wing guerrillas, killing an estimated 9,000 people in what has become known as the “dirty war.”

“Their vision was that in order to kill a cancer, which was terrorism, you had to cut out the surrounding tissue,” Tex Harris, the US Embassy’s political officer in charge of human rights from 1977 to 1979, told the Wall Street Journal. “And that surrounding tissue was all of these left-wing groups.”