Confronted by the growing threat of Middle East militants, President Barack Obama implored world leaders at the United Nations Wednesday to rally behind his expanding military campaign to stamp out the violent Islamic State group and its “network of death.”
“There can be no reasoning, no negotiation, with this brand of evil,” Obama told the General Assembly. In a striking shift for a president who has been reluctant to take military action in the past, Obama declared that force is the only language the militants understand. He warned those who have joined their cause to “leave the battlefield while they can.”
The widening war against the Islamic State was just one in a cascade of crises that confronted the presidents, prime ministers and monarchs at the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly. Also vying for attention was Russia’s continued provocations in Ukraine, a deadly Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and the plight of civilians caught in conflicts around the world.
“Not since the end of the Second World War have there been so many refugees, displaced people and asylum seekers,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said as he opened Wednesday’s session.
In a rare move, Obama also chaired a meeting of the U.N. Security Council where members unanimously adopted a resolution requiring all countries to prevent the recruitment and transport of would-be foreign fighters preparing to join terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State group.
The American-led military campaign in the Middle East was at the centre of much of the day’s discussions. After weeks of airstrikes in Iraq, U.S. planes began hitting targets in Syria this week, joined by an unexpected coalition of five Arab nations: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. There were more U.S. strikes Wednesday on both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi border.
France has also taken part in strikes in Iraq, and British Prime Minister David Cameron’s office announced that Parliament was being recalled to London to debate whether to join the campaign, too.
The Islamic State has made lightning gains in Iraq this year and now moves freely across the increasingly blurred border with Syria. The group has claimed responsibility for the beheading of two American journalists and a British aid worker, sparking outrage in the West and contributing to an increase in public support for military action.
Shortly after Obama’s remarks, France confirmed that Algerian extremists allied with the Islamic State group had beheaded one of its citizens after the French ignored demands to stop airstrikes in Iraq. French President Francois Hollande, who was in New York for the U.N. meetings, said the killing underscored why “the fight the international community needs to wage versus terrorism knows no borders.”
U.S. officials say they are concerned that foreigners with Western passports could return to their home countries to carry out attacks. And even as Obama welcomed support for the resolution to deter foreign fighters, he said more must be done.
“The words spoken here today must be matched and translated into action,” he said.
The threat from the Islamic State group has already drawn Obama back into conflicts in the Middle East that he has long sought to avoid, particularly in Syria, which is mired in a bloody three-year civil war. Just months ago, the president appeared to be on track to fulfil his pledge to end the U.S.-led wars he inherited in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Obama sought to distinguish this current military campaign from those lengthy wars, declaring that he has no intention of sending U.S. troops to occupy foreign lands. He also pressed Middle Eastern nations to look beyond military action and take steps to reject the ideology that has spawned groups like the Islamic State and to cut off funding that has allowed that terror group and others to thrive.
“No external power can bring about a transformation of hearts and minds,” Obama said in his nearly 40-minute address.
Apart from the Middle East, the president was particularly blunt in his condemnation of Russia’s actions in Ukraine. He accused Moscow of sending arms to pro-Russian separatists, refusing to allow access to the site of a downed civilian airliner and then moving its own troops across the border with Ukraine.
Still, Obama held open the prospect of a resolution to the conflict. While he has previously expressed skepticism about a cease-fire signed this month, he said Wednesday that the agreement “offers an opening” for peace.
If Russia follows through, Obama said, the U.S. will lift economic sanctions that have damaged Russia’s economy but so far failed to shift President Vladimir Putin’s approach.
The chaotic global landscape Obama described Wednesday stood in contrast to his remarks at the U.N. one year ago, when he touted diplomatic openings on multiple fronts. At the time, the U.S. was embarking on a fresh attempt to forge an elusive peace between Israelis and Palestinians and there were signs of a thaw in the decades-old tensions between the U.S. and Iran.
The Mideast talks have since collapsed, though the president said that “as bleak as the landscape appears, America will never give up the pursuit of peace.” And while the U.S., Iran and world powers are now in the midst of nuclear negotiations, those talks are deadlocked and there is skepticism about whether a deal can be reached by a Nov. 24 deadline.
“My message to Iran’s leaders and people is simple: Do not let this opportunity pass,” Obama said.
Even as the president cast the U.S. as the main driver of peace and security around the world, he acknowledged that his country has not always lived up to its own ideals. He singled out the recent clashes between police and protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, that followed the shooting death of a black teenager.
“Yes, we have our own racial and ethnic tensions,” Obama said. “But we 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.”