Obama's call to action at UN: Join us in fight against 'evil' Islamic State

Saying that 'the future of our civilization depends on us coming together' to fight Islamist extremists, Mr. Obama told the United Nations General Assembly that military action was necessary because 'the language of force' is the only one they understand.

Brendan McDermid/Reuters
President Barack Obama arrives to chair a meeting of the United Nations Security Council at the 69th United Nations General Assembly in New York Wednesday.

Two weeks after offering the American people his rationale for launching the United States into a new Middle East war to combat the Islamic State militant group, President Obama on Wednesday issued a call to the world to join America in the fight against violent religious extremism.

Saying gravely that “the future of our civilization depends on us coming together” to fight the extremist scourge, Mr. Obama told the United Nations General Assembly that military action against the militants controlling parts of Syria and Iraq was necessary because “the language of force” is the only one they understand.

“There can be no reasoning, no negotiations with this brand of evil,” Obama said – describing the extremists that he said blithely kill children and behead journalists with an unvarnished term that many in the assembly of world leaders might have more readily associated with the president’s predecessor.

But Obama also said that ultimately the battle against religious extremism could not be won by force. In a 40-minute speech directed in large part at Muslim countries, Obama said that other efforts hold the key to what he said is one of the 21st -century’s central challenges. These, he said, range from practical steps such as halting funding for extremist groups and stanching the flow of foreign fighters to Middle East conflicts, to more “generational” tasks like countering the extremist ideology and expanding economic and political opportunities for young Muslims.    

Obama’s call for the world to join America in fighting IS, which he referred to by the alternative acronym ISIL, came in the context of a speech that offered an assertive but positive portrayal of America’s leadership in the world.

America is at the forefront of international efforts to assist West African countries in halting the Ebola virus, Obama said, and he put the US at the lead of a collective effort to rebuff Russian actions in Ukraine, which he said challenge Europe’s postwar order and “international norms” more broadly.

In addition, Obama asserted the US is leading the global response to address climate change – providing an example for other major economies by cutting carbon emissions and assisting the most vulnerable developing countries confront global warming’s impact – as well as international efforts to negotiate an accord to limit Iran’s nuclear program.

Obama’s speech came on the heels of the General Assembly’s opening address by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who said the world’s “horizon of hope” had been darkened over the past year by a list of alarming events: from “unspeakable acts” of violence and a new high in the number of refugees displaced by conflict, to “cold war ghosts” raised by the Ukraine conflict and an Arab Spring that has gone “violently wrong.”

But Obama underscored what he called “signposts of progress,” citing a reduction in the prospects of war between the world’s major powers, a 50-percent reduction in extreme poverty worldwide in this century, and the universal accessibility through modern technology of the world’s great store of information.

“Despite the headlines, this is the best time in history to be born,” Obama said, adding that in the face of “an undertow of instability,” for America “the choice is clear: we choose hope over fear.”

White House officials said the president wanted to offer a “forceful and optimistic message of American leadership”: placing the US at the forefront of addressing the world’s major challenges, but also emphasizing that advancing global interconnectedness means that every country must join in solving global problems.  

A day earlier, Obama told world leaders assembled at the UN that the US was taking significant steps to combat global warming. But he also placed an onus on other major powers to act – in particular China, the world’s largest emitter of heat-trapping greenhouse gases – saying, “That’s what big nations have to do.”

Obama’s upbeat message seemed equally aimed at Americans left unsettled and even fearful after the summer’s string of jarring events.

But the president may have sown confusion rather than hope, some US analysts say, because of what they see as a mixed message.

“At the climate summit [Tuesday] Obama describes climate change as the issue that will define the contours of this century, and then today there’s only a sentence or two dedicated to climate change” with the bulk of the speech presenting religious extremism as today’s major threat, says Brett Schaefer, an expert on the UN and international institutions at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “It raises a question whether the president really believes what he says from one day to the next.”

Obama’s speech was also “long on rhetoric and short on specifics,” Mr. Schaefer says, noting that in citing Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, Obama “didn’t call on the UN to do anything” – something he says might have been tacit “acknowledgement that the international system is broken” and unable to address the world’s major security challenges.

Obama’s call for the world to join the US in fighting religious extremism may have fallen flat because the “coalition” the administration has assembled so far – Obama referred to more than 40 countries in his speech – does not suggest global enthusiasm, some national security experts say.

At the UN, Obama tried to “hand a fig leaf of multilateralism on what is clearly a largely unilateral US air campaign against ISIS/ISIL in Syria,” said Michael Desch, international security expert at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. But Mr. Desch says the president could not hide the reality that the ground forces the US will need to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State are either “largely unwilling … or incompetent.”

Others said a speech largely pressing Muslim countries to come to grips with their challenges might have come off as pedantic or arrogant.

But Obama seemed mindful of this criticism, dedicating a few lines of his speech to an acknowledgment that America “hasn’t always lived up to” its principles.

Citing events this summer in Ferguson, Mo., where the killing of an unarmed black youth by a white policeman exposed to the world America’s “racial and ethnic tensions,” Obama said America “welcomes the scrutiny of the world” as a positive element in efforts to bring about change.

If America permits itself to coax the world to change and progress, Obama said, it is because Americans have been willing to face their challenges – challenges like racial divides and respecting the rule of law, which are also the world’s challenges – head on.

Saying America’s progress could serve as an example to others, Obama said that after nearly six years as president, “I believe this promise can help light the world.”

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