President Obama began his presidency with a call for a “new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world.” He will end it as a reluctant but unapologetic warrior, using U.S. military force to smash Islamic extremists and the “network of death” they have planted at the heart of the Middle East.
The speech Obama gave in Cairo in 2009 and the address he gave at the United Nations on Wednesday can be seen as bookends. In the heady months after his election, Obama hoped to be remembered as the president who forged a new peace between the Western and Islamic worlds. Now, while not completely abandoning that hope, Obama says there first must be war against jihadist “killers” who understand no language but “the language of force.”
The passages of Obama’s U.N. address dealing with the horrors committed by the Islamic State — the self-styled jihadist “caliphate” now being blasted by U.S. airstrikes — were strikingly vivid, especially in light of reports that the president wrote much of the speech himself.
“This group has terrorized all who they come across in Iraq and Syria,” he said. “Mothers, sisters, daughters have been subjected to rape as a weapon of war. Innocent children have been gunned down. Bodies have been dumped in mass graves. Religious minorities have been starved to death. In the most horrific crimes imaginable, innocent human beings have been beheaded, with videos of the atrocity distributed to shock the conscience of the world.”
The next lines echoed the Manichaean worldview we so often heard from George W. Bush: “No God condones this terror. No grievance justifies these actions. There can be no reasoning — no negotiation — with this brand of evil.”
While the president rejected “any suggestion of a clash of civilizations” and insisted that “the United States is not and never will be at war with Islam” — much as Bush gave those same assurances — Obama effectively committed the remainder of his time in office to waging war against jihadist extremism on multiple fronts.
Obama challenged Muslim countries to help fight jihadism not just militarily but ideologically as well: “It’s time to end the hypocrisy of those who accumulate wealth through the global economy and then siphon funds to those who teach children to tear it down.”
His audience of world leaders understood the subtext: It is not enough for nations such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar to join the U.S.-led military coalition against the Islamic State. They must also cease funding the spread of radical theology and stop supporting Islamist militias in conflicts such as the Syrian civil war. Here, again, there was a not-so-faint echo of Bush’s “with us or against us” line in the sand.
The Cairo speech and this week’s address sounded many of the same themes, but there was a marked difference in tone. Five years ago, Obama invited Muslim political and religious leaders to join him in combating violent extremism. Now he is demanding they do so.
The president would have grounds to argue that, if his approach has changed, it is because the world has changed. The Arab Spring revolutions unleashed powerful forces that had long been suppressed by authoritarian regimes. Among these were religious political movements, which rushed to fill the power vacuums that suddenly appeared, and long-buried passions stemming from the Sunni-Shiite sectarian divide.
But Obama has changed, too. In Cairo, he listed the sources of friction between the West and the Muslim world; ranked second, right after violent extremism, was the unresolved conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. On Wednesday, while making clear that the United States still supports a two-state solution, Obama said that “the situation in Iraq, and Syria and Libya should cure anybody of the illusion that the Arab-Israeli conflict is the main source of problems in the region.”
Before even turning to the Middle East, the president had harsh words — quite a few of them — for Russia’s actions in Ukraine, which “challenge the postwar order.” The president promised to “impose a cost on Russia for aggression” and added that “we call upon others to join us on the right side of history.”
Obama mentioned the racial tensions in Ferguson, Mo., as an illustration of how the United States airs, confronts and tries to deal with its problems. It was as if he were challenging the assembled leaders to do the same.
Start to finish, it was one of the most important speeches of the Obama presidency. So far, that is.
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