At the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday, President Barack Obama challenged world leaders to join together “to reject the cancer of violent extremism.” I believe his speech will be remembered as one of the most important of his career.
His message was tough — without any of his trademark ambivalence. He urged Muslim leaders to unify against a new breed of terrorists such as the Islamic State, which can use modern technology to wreak worldwide havoc. He said the United States would “work with a broad coalition to dismantle this network of death” and was asking “the world to join in this effort.”
“Collectively, we must take concrete steps to address the danger posed by religiously motivated fanatics,” he added. My readers may question whether airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria are the best, or a sufficient, approach.
But here’s why I think this speech was so important — and why Obama must keep his promise to stay engaged:
First, the president clearly spelled out how the Islamic State threat fits into the broader global picture, where world order seems to be collapsing as Russia invades Ukraine and Ebola spreads.
Each of these challenges, said Obama, is a symptom of the broader “failure of our international system to keep pace with an interconnected world.” The old systems are cracking, and no new ones are at hand.
The United Nations (divided within and frozen by Russian and Chinese veto power) is paralyzed. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine challenges the post-World War II assumption that countries would no longer seize land by force.
The Islamic State’s conquest of territory that spans Syria and Iraq creates a lawless zone where terrorists cut off hostages’ heads and train with impunity. So who will police it?
“A central question of our global age is whether we will solve our problems together,” Obama rightly said, “or whether we descend into destructive rivalries of the past.” On issue after issue, he added, “we cannot rely on a rule-book written for a different century.”
Nowhere is that clearer than in the case of challenging jihadi terrorists such as the Islamic State, whose “nightmarish vision” divides the world “into adherents and infidels.”
Which leads to Obama’s second key point: It is time for Muslim communities “to explicitly reject the ideology of al-Qaida and” the Islamic State. The president openly challenged Arab states to step up to the plate.
There should be no more tolerance of “so-called clerics” who preach sectarian hatred, he said, or educate children “to hate other people.” This was a not very veiled reference to the education systems of Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries that promote harsh variants of Islam that vilify other religions or other Muslims who don’t embrace such ideas.
Obama said “it’s time to end the hypocrisy” of Gulf countries that use their oil wealth to fund radical Islamists (even as they now assist America in bombing the Islamic State). That funding must end, along with allowing jihadis to cross into Syria from Turkey. (A unanimous Security Council resolution last week made it a crime for jihadis to travel to Syria, but that won’t stop the flow.)
As Obama pointedly noted, while Christianity long ago endured centuries of vicious sectarian conflict, today it “is violence within Muslim communities that has become the source of so much human misery.” What he didn’t say is that without some accommodation between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran — which are fueling a proxy war between their co-religionists in the region — it will be very hard to quench the sectarian fires in Iraq and Syria.
“The only lasting solution to Syria’s civil war is political,” Obama said. He’s correct, but no political solution can evolve while Iran (and Russia) back a regime in Syria that murders tens of thousands of Sunni civilians. Nor is one possible while the Gulf states let rich sheikhs fund radical Sunni militias who hate Syrian Alawites. That sectarian war gives the Islamic State its slogans and attracts thousands of foreign Muslim fighters.
Obama bluntly warned Arab Muslim leaders (and indirectly Iran) that their sectarian fight has birthed a jihadi monster that already threatens their homelands. He reminded the rest of the world that the new brand of terrorists, “more lethal and ideological” than the old breed, threatens countries worldwide: China has Muslim terrorists in its far west, while Russia faces them in the Caucasus and neighboring Central Asia; foreign jihadis who train in Syria will soon be returning to China and Russia as well as Turkey and Europe.
Unless the “international community” unites to thwart this threat, it will spread. Another hostage, this time a French tourist, was just beheaded by an Islamic extremist group in Algeria. Any nationality could be next.
Will Obama’s “tough love” speech spark introspection in the Arab world? Will it encourage Russia and China to think more constructively about the Islamic State problem? Will the president’s impressive show on the podium be matched with a long-term U.S. strategy?
All unclear. But what the president accomplished last week was to confront U.N. members with a real choice: If they don’t work together to thwart the Islamic State, many will be attacked individually. If Obama can actually muster the global coalition he seeks to fight the Islamic State, that will be the most impressive foreign policy legacy he leaves after 2016.