Anyone looking for a declaration of a hot war on the Islamic State out of President Obama’s three-day summit on countering violent extremism will be deeply disappointed.
While the role that military intervention will play in reversing the territorial advances of the radical Islamist group got a few mentions – especially concerning short-term emergency actions – the White House summit more faithfully reflected the president’s views on how violent extremism will ultimately be defeated.
Among the principles highlighted by the summit, which wrapped up Thursday with a gathering of representatives from more than 60 countries:
- Governments can and must act to dry up radical groups’ sources of funding and to block the recruitment highways carrying foreign fighters to the battle front. But long-term success will rely more on grassroots, community-generated intervention – particularly with susceptible youth – rather than on top-down prescriptions and edicts.
- Defeating extremism will not result from demonizing one religion, but the goal will be advanced by protecting and strengthening the pluralism (particularly religious pluralism) and moderate Muslim voices the extremists abhor.
- With youth unemployment in key Middle Eastern countries averaging about 30 percent (and with young Muslim immigrants in Western immigrant ghettos often experiencing equally bleak horizons) jobs and economic opportunity have to be expanded to dampen the allure of extremist ideologies.
- Defeating the self-described Islamic State, or ISIS or ISIL as it is also known, will not be a matter of a few years but will be “generational,” as Mr. Obama said at the summit.
None of these points is new. Indeed most of them have been part of Obama’s approach to Islamist radicalization – or what the administration prefers to call “violent extremism” to disassociate it from mainstream Islam – at least since August 2011.
That’s when the administration unveiled a plan for “empowering local partners to prevent violent extremism.” Since then the administration launched pilot programs in Boston, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis, to encourage teachers, religious leaders, and local law enforcement to identify at-risk youths and counter the social-media messaging of racial groups.
Last September, Obama took many of the same ideas for defeating the Islamic State and other forms of terrorism-based radical Islam to the United Nations in his speech to the General Assembly. He also convened a Security Council session on stemming the flow of financing and foreign fighters into Islamic State.
And Obama plans to carry on in this vein, when again next September he will convene a follow-up meeting at the UN to assess individual countries’ actions and where the battle with the Islamic State stands.
On Thursday, Obama underscored a need to counter the extremists’ propaganda of violence and hatred with “bridges of communication” to encourage dialogue and respect among sectarian populations and across geographical divides. Launching that effort, he announced creation of a “virtual exchange program” that will connect 1 million young people from the United States, the Middle East, and North Africa. The new cyber program will be named after Christopher Stevens, the late US ambassador to Libya who was killed along with three other Americans in the terrorist attacks in Benghazi.
“Let’s bring our youth together to promote understanding and cooperation,” Obama said. “Young people are taught to hate,” he added. “It doesn’t come naturally to them.”
That kind of rhetoric may come off as a bit too touchy-feely for congressional hawks who fault Obama’s anti-IS strategy as weak and faulty – for putting a priority on the Islamic State in Iraq and “ignoring” the base in Syria. In the view of some, the president is too squeamish about the potential need for ground troops to destroy ISIS.
But administration officials were adamant that, while military intervention will continue to be part of the plan to take down the Islamic State, the broader battle with violent extremism will require a much wider range of tools.
Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged that “you have to take the people off the battlefield who are there today.” But he added that “you’re kind of stupid if all you do is do that, and you don’t prevent more people from going to the battlefield.”
Obama and administration officials also stuck to the summit script that banned references to “Islamic” extremism, despite goading from a range of critics who say the unwillingness to call things as they are suggests weakness and a failure to confront the reality of the war within Islam.
“No religion is responsible for terrorism,” Obama said Thursday, “people are responsible for violence and terrorism.” Differentiating between the religion and the “terrorists” claiming to fight in its name, he added, “We are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.”
Earlier in the week, a senior administration official addressed the controversy over Obama’s studious separation of “Islamic” from “violent extremism,” saying the intentional decoupling reflects two facts: Islamic State militants do not represent Islam, and Muslims “have suffered tremendously” from the Islamic State and similar groups.
Pressed on the nuance, the official added, “You can call them what you want, we are calling them terrorists.”