One year after proclaiming that America was shifting away from “perpetual war,” President Obama called on the United Nations Wednesday to help the U.S. in his widening new war against the Islamic State terrorist group in Syria and Iraq.
“There can be no reasoning — no negotiation — with this brand of evil,” Mr. Obama said at the annual U.N. General Assembly. “The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force. So the United States of America will work with a broad coalition to dismantle this network of death.”
Unlike many of his speeches in international forums, Mr. Obama was not interrupted once by applause. Foreign heads of state showed no noticeable reaction and gave the president a brief, polite ovation at the end of his 40-minute address.
The president’s changed tone came as the U.S. expanded its military campaign against the Islamist militants, with airstrikes hitting targets in both Syria and Iraq. Mr. Obama opened another military front with airstrikes this week against an al Qaeda splinter group in Syria that the Pentagon said was preparing attacks on the U.S. or Europe.
The burgeoning twin threats have drawn Mr. Obama back into a Middle East war that he has long sought to avoid, particularly in Syria, where Russia and Iran have stakes in the outcome of the three-year-old civil war. The renewed conflict is also risking Mr. Obama’s desired reputation for ending wars, both in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As he has said since ordering airstrikes on Aug. 8, the Nobel Peace-Prize winning president referred to his new military action as a “targeted campaign” instead of a “war.”
“I have made it clear that America will not base our entire foreign policy on reacting to terrorism,” he said. “Rather, we have waged a focused campaign against al Qaeda and its associated forces — taking out their leaders and denying them the safe havens they rely upon.”
A coalition of five Arab nations joined the U.S. in the strikes in Syria: Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
Mr. Obama asked the world “to join in this effort” and warned the Islamic State’s foreign fighters to quit now or be killed.
“Those who have joined [the Islamic State] should leave the battlefield while they can,” the president said. “Those who continue to fight for a hateful cause will find they are increasingly alone.”
While repeatedly proclaiming that America is not at war with Islam, Mr. Obama also tried to walk a tight line by urging Middle Eastern nations to take the lead in combating violent Islamist extremism.
“It is time for the world — especially Muslim communities — to explicitly, forcefully, and consistently reject the ideology of al Qaeda and [the Islamic State],” the president said. “Today, it is violence within Muslim communities that has become the source of so much human misery.”
He added, “Ultimately, the task of rejecting sectarianism and extremism is a generational task — a task for the people of the Middle East themselves. No external power can bring about a transformation of hearts and minds.”
Later Wednesday, Mr. Obama is expected to urge the U.N. Security Council to pass a broad new resolution that would impose global travel bans on fighters intent on enlisting in overseas wars, a measure aimed at the Islamic State. Administration officials have said they believe the resolution has enough support to be approved.
The militant threat in the Middle East is just one in a series of global crises that have tested Mr. Obama, just one year after he proclaimed at the U.N. that at the world was “more stable.”
Russia has ignored warnings and sanctions from the U.S. and Europe to stop its military aggression in Ukraine. And leaders in West Africa have criticized Mr. Obama for not doing more to help combat an Ebola outbreak that has killed more than 2,500 people.
Mr. Obama took on Russia in his speech, accusing Moscow of arming separatists, refusing to allow access to the site of a downed civilian airliner and moving its own troops into Ukraine.
“This is a vision of the world in which might makes right, a world in which one nation’s borders can be redrawn by another, and civilized people are not allowed to recover the remains of their loved ones because of the truth that might be revealed,” Mr. Obama said. “America stands for something different.”
Mr. Obama pledged the U.S. will spend more on the emergencies and blamed the international community for allowing the problems to fester.
“We collectively have not invested adequately in the public health system of developing countries,” he said. “We have not confronted forcefully enough the intolerance, sectarianism and hopelessness that feed violent extremism in too many parts of the globe.”
As he often does in front of international audiences, Mr. Obama also called attention to American strife. He said it’s “true” that the U.S. “has plenty of problems within our own borders,” and pointed as an example to the civil unrest spawned by a white police officer shooting black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August.
“In a summer marked by instability in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, I know the world also took notice of the small American city of Ferguson, Missouri — where a young man was killed, and a community was divided,” Mr. Obama said. “So yes, we have our own racial and ethnic tensions. And like every country, we continually wrestle with how to reconcile the vast changes wrought by globalization and greater diversity with the traditions that we hold dear.”
But Mr. Obama said Americans “welcome the scrutiny of the world, because what you see in America is a country that has steadily worked to address our problems and make our union more perfect.”
“America is not the same as it was 100 years ago, 50 years ago, or even a decade ago,” he said. “Because we fight for our ideals and are willing to criticize ourselves when we fall short.”
In advance of next week’s meeting at the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mr. Obama said the situation in the Middle East looks “bleak” and laid down a marker for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
“Let’s be clear: The status quo in the West Bank and Gaza is not sustainable,” Mr. Obama said. “We cannot afford to turn away from this effort — not when rockets are fired at innocent Israelis, or the lives of so many Palestinian children are taken from us in Gaza. So long as I am president, we will stand up for the principle that Israelis, Palestinians, the region, and the world will be more just with two states living side by side, in peace and security.”