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Obama to U.N.: OK, America Will Be World’s Police

President Barack Obama reasserted America’s leadership in the Middle East after years of retreat from the region, calling on the world to join U.S. forces in the war against the "evil" self-styled Islamic State and other extremist groups. Reason to heed his call came mere hours later, when news of yet another beheading of a ...

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

President Barack Obama reasserted America’s leadership in the Middle East after years of retreat from the region, calling on the world to join U.S. forces in the war against the "evil" self-styled Islamic State and other extremist groups.

Reason to heed his call came mere hours later, when news of yet another beheading of a Westerner at the hands of radical Muslims, this time in Algeria, surfaced.

Addressing the 193-member U.N. General Assembly just two days after broadening an air campaign against the Islamic State to include Syria, Obama implored world leaders to confront the barbaric movement that has horrified the world with its mass murders of Iraqi soldiers, beheadings, and attacks on Shiite Muslims, Christians, and religious minorities.

"Today, I asked the world to join this effort," Obama said. "No God condones this terrorism. No grievance justifies these actions. There can be no reasoning — no negotiation with this brand of evil. 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.

"In this effort, we do not act alone — nor do we intend to send U.S. troops to occupy foreign lands," he added. "Instead, we will support Iraqis and Syrians fighting to reclaim their communities."

Obama’s address contrasted starkly with last year’s speech, in which he highlighted the limits of American power to influence events in the Middle East. Then, Obama was defending himself from charges that he allowed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to brutally beat down Western-backed revolutionaries and further consolidate power. "The United States has a hard-earned humility when it comes to our ability to determine events inside other countries," he said.

But Wednesday, facing a potentially protracted military engagement in Syria and Iraq, he said: "We see the future not as something out of our control, but as something we can shape for the better through concerted and collective effort. We reject fatalism or cynicism when it comes to human affairs; we choose to work for the world as it should be."

Obama outlined his four-pronged strategy for eradicating the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL: enlist the international community to help fight and destroy the movement; entice nations to counter the appeal of extremist ideology at home; convince governments to provide alternatives, particularly for young people, and offer better education and greater political freedom; and address the wider regional threat posed by worsening sectarian conflict between the region’s Sunnis and Shiites. "Let’s be clear: This is a fight that no one is winning," he said.

This afternoon, Obama will preside over a U.N. Security Council vote on a U.S.-drafted resolution aimed at cutting off extremists’ ability to recruit foreign fighters and encouraging countries to restrict their citizens’ travel to and from terrorist battlefields. It also calls on governments to confront the radical ideology fueling home-grown extremism. "It is time for the world — especially Muslim communities — to explicitly, forcefully, and consistently reject the ideology of organizations like al Qaeda and ISIL," Obama said.

A pessimism hung over the annual gathering as world leaders assessed the spate of international crises: Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula; the entrenchment of Islamist extremism spanning from Libya to Nigeria to Syria and Iraq; and West Africa’s Ebola epidemic threatening to claim hundreds of thousands of victims if left unchecked.

"The horizon of hope is darkened. Our hearts are made very heavy by unspeakable acts and the death of innocents," Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said while welcoming the General Assembly. "Cold War ghosts have returned to haunt our times. We have seen so much of the Arab Spring go violently wrong."

However, "leadership is precisely about finding the seeds of hope and nurturing them into something bigger," Ban added. "That is our duty; that is my call to you today."

Obama called the range of global emergencies "symptoms of a broader problem — the failure of our international system to keep pace with an interconnected world. We have not invested adequately in the public health capacity of developing countries. Too often, we have failed to enforce international norms when it’s inconvenient to do so. And we have not confronted forcefully enough the intolerance, sectarianism, and hopelessness that feeds violent extremism in too many parts of the globe."

Obama called out Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was notably absent, saying that Moscow is challenging the "postwar order" by fueling separatists’ aspirations with weapons and political protection.

He also asked Iran to "seize this historic opportunity" to negotiate a deal with Western nations to curtail its pursuit of a nuclear weapon. "My message to Iran’s leaders and people has been simple and consistent: Do not let this opportunity pass. We can reach a solution that meets your energy needs while assuring the world that your program is peaceful."

He pivoted to Asia, assuring China’s neighbors that the United States will maintain its regional military presence. "America is and will continue to be a Pacific power," he said.

And Obama acknowledged America’s shortcomings in living up to its own ideals.  

"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. So, yes, we have our own racial and ethnic tensions."

However, the United States is not dissuaded from claiming its global leadership role: "The United states of America will not be distracted or deterred from what must be done. We are heir to a proud legacy of freedom and we are prepared to do what is necessary to secure that legacy for generations." 

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch