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Obama: World Must Reject "Cancer of Violent Extremism"

Obama: World Must Reject "Cancer of Violent Extremism"

By Alexis Simendinger - September 24, 2014

Somewhere inside the White House they are calling it the president’s “crossroads speech” -- a somber vision of a world at yet another turning point; a speech in which Barack Obama launched America, in full view of the world, down a path of war he labored rhetorically Wednesday to reconcile.

During an address to the United Nations General Assembly delivered days after the United States dropped bombs and launched missiles into Syria, Obama defended the ongoing military offensive as a necessary rejection of “the cancer of violent extremism.”

Arguing that “right makes might,” he asked the people of Iraq and Syria, and especially the young, to reject the murderous, rampaging assaults of groups that use Islam as a shield for terror.

“Today, I ask the world to join in this effort.”

The president never explicitly mentioned the Khorasan Group, a small band of terrorists targeted by the Pentagon in airstrikes this week in Syria, according to the administration. But Obama argued that the new war to degrade and ultimately defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is required because “the only language understood by killers like this is the language of force.”

He issued a stark warning to the adherents of ISIL and other Muslim fighters tempted to join what he called the “network of death.”

“Those who have joined ISIL should leave the battlefield while they can,” Obama said, standing before a U.N. audience of world leaders who sat silent and expressionless.

“Those who continue to fight for a hateful cause will find they are increasingly alone, for we will not succumb to threats, and we will demonstrate that the future belongs to those who build, not those who destroy,” the president said.

Within an hour of the speech, the news media reported that a French tourist captured Sunday by a militant Algerian group known as Jund al-Khilafa had been beheaded, reportedly in retaliation for France’s agreement to join airstrikes against the Islamic State.

In weaving a narrative of war as an antiseptic against the spread of violent extremism, Obama labored to return to the civil society themes that helped propel him to the world’s attention as an American politician.

To distinguish the 2014 war on terror from familiar global precursors, the president described his view of what the ISIL war is not.

It is not America vs. Islam, he said, nor a clash of civilizations. The United States will not send armies into Iraq and Syria, nor will it be “an occupying power,” the president vowed.

But Obama spent little time in his speech dwelling on whether more than a dozen years of U.S. military offensives in Iraq and Afghanistan, Libya and Yemen, Sudan and now Syria, is a counterterrorism prescription that makes the underlying disease more communicable, helping to spread rather than thwart jihadists’ hatreds and pursuit of showy barbarism.

Instead, Obama pointed to what he said are the root causes of terrorism: a paucity of economic opportunities and corrupt, strong-armed governance in the Middle East and elsewhere. He asked nations to return to the United Nations in 2015 ready to outline what they plan to do to eradicate at home factors that contribute to the world’s perpetual cycle of battling violence with violence.

It was the president’s way of honoring the power of the United Nations to apply order where there is chaos. It was also a way to counter criticism that the United States is an aggressor that insists on wearing a halo. By returning to familiar themes tapped in previous United Nations speeches, Obama reiterated his own take on American values.

Rooting out causes of global hatreds is “a generational task,” he said Wednesday. A year ago at the U.N. General Assembly, he said, “the hard work of forging freedom and democracy is the task of a generation.”

The justification for launching a new war in Iraq and Syria is defense of the American homeland and U.S. allies, Obama argued. As the counterterrorism operation continues this year, Congress is likely to revisit the legal underpinnings of his decisions.    

“We will take action against threats to our security and our allies while building an architecture of counterterrorism cooperation,” the president explained in New York.

However reluctantly, he appeared to accept that he was outlining a closing chapter of his presidency in a way he could not have imagined at the outset. Even as he repeated his familiar encouragement to young people to make a better world, he seemed to chafe at the unexpected crossroads at which he finds himself.

The world may be at a turning point, and so is Barack Obama.

“I have made it clear that America will not base our entire foreign policy on reacting to terrorism,” he said with a touch of frustration in his voice.

The president forcefully rebuked Russia for its violent incursions into Ukraine, but Syrian President Bashar al Assad got off lightly. Obama made a glancing reference to the ongoing civil war in Syria and that nation’s reviled dictator.  Assad won a momentary reprieve, of sorts, because ISIL is deemed a more pressing and destabilizing global threat.

“America is training and equipping the Syrian opposition to be a counterweight to the terrorists of ISIL and the brutality of the Assad regime,” the president added.

It was a grim speech that turned the triumphant assertions of his 2013 remarks upside down.

“The world is more stable than it was five years ago,” Obama told the United Nations a year ago. “We’ve also worked to end a decade of war,” he said, pronouncing the Iraq War over and the Afghanistan War a success because it dismantled “the core of al-Qaeda.”

He told the world then, “These new circumstances have also meant shifting away from a perpetual war footing.”

On Wednesday, he insisted America’s aims and its values remain unaltered, even if war is the chosen method to stamp out condemned beliefs.

“It is time for a new compact among civilized peoples of this world to eradicate war at its most fundamental source,” the president said, “and that is the corruption of young minds by violent ideology.”

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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