Back in 2011, President Obama was criticized when one of his advisers said that the White House strategy to oust Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was to lead from behind, allowing others to lead with Washington serving in a supporting role. Obama’s speech at the United Nations today declared that doctrine dead.
Following a confident speech announcing airstrikes by an America-led coalition of Arab nations yesterday, Obama denounced Islamic extremism, including ISIS, vowing to destroy it and calling it a “cancer.” He also made clear that the United States would take a leadership role in the fight.
“We reject any suggestion of a clash of civilizations. Belief in permanent religious war is the misguided refuge of extremists who cannot build or create anything, and therefore peddle only fanaticism and hate,” Obama said in a broad speech that also condemned Russia’s actions in Ukraine, called for coordinated action to stop the spread of the Ebola virus, and said that diplomacy aimed at securing a nuclear deal with Iran would continue. “And it is no exaggeration to say that humanity’s future depends on us uniting against those who would divide us along fault lines of tribe or sect; race or religion.”
“This is not simply a matter of words,” the president continued. “Collectively, we must take concrete steps to address the danger posed by religiously motivated fanatics, and the trends that fuel their recruitment. Moreover, this campaign against extremism goes beyond a narrow security challenge.
“For while we have methodically degraded core al Qaeda and supported a transition to a sovereign Afghan government, extremist ideology has shifted to other places – particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, where a quarter of young people have no job; food and water could grow scarce; corruption is rampant; and sectarian conflicts have become increasingly hard to contain.”
Obama outlined a four-step approach to fighting ISIS and other al Qaeda-connected groups. First, ISIS must be destroyed. Second, he called on Muslims to reject extremism; he also called on the UN Security Council to pass a resolution that "underscores the responsibility of the states to counter violent extremism.” Third, he said that cycles of conflict must be disrupted. Last, Arab nations must do more to support young people.
The speech amounts to an about-face from Obama’s earlier positions on the Middle East. When Obama pulled all U.S. forces out of Iraq in 2011, he attempted to wash his hands of a war he didn’t want. He refused to punish Syria when President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, despite threats to do so.
ISIS has now forced the president to reengage in Iraq and Syria. However, over the summer, as the group threatened to form its own country in western Iraq and eastern Syria, and after two Americans were beheaded, Obama wasn’t keen for a fight.
In his speech yesterday, followed by his statement in New York today, Obama took a different tact. In each, he was much more forceful than he was in the past, displaying leadership that many politicians, including Republicans and members of his own party said was lacking.
Much of Obama’s strategy to defeat ISIS requires buy-in from Arab nations. He’s won over the governments of five key Arab allies, who participated in the Syrian airstrikes. However, CNN senior international correspondent Arwa Damon said after the speech that it would be much more difficult to win over the Arab public.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi also warned that airstrikes might be too little, too late.
“We have warned ... this is going to end in a bloodbath if nobody stops it. Nobody was listening,” al-Abadi said on CNN. “I personally am happy that everybody is seeing this danger, so that they are going to do something about it. And I hope they ... do it right, and they don't do it their own way."
Muslim extremists also issued a stark reminder that it would take more than words to defeat them. An hour after the speech, Muslim extremists in Algeria with ties to ISIS beheaded a French hostage.
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