President Obama emphatically defended his decision to expand the air campaign against violent extremists in the Middle East, vowing before world leaders Wednesday that he would speak “the language of force” with terrorists who threaten America and its friends around the world.
Violent extremists based in Syria are so brutal that they force the world to “look into the heart of darkness,” Obama said at the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly.
“No god condones this terror,” he said. “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.”
His address came a day and a half after the U.S. widened from Iraq into Syria its air assault against the Islamic State militant group that has seized control of large parts of both countries. The president has spoken for weeks of the need to weaken and “ultimately destroy” the group, and the U.S. began targeting the group’s strongholds in Syria with a barrage of bombings early Tuesday.
Hours after he spoke at the U.N., a body devoted to peace through diplomacy, came a striking reminder of the complex challenge Obama faces in both taking on Islamic State and shoring up support for doing so. The U.S. and allied Arab nations started a third night of air raids over Syria, targeting a dozen small oil refineries that generated up to $2 million a day for the group, U.S. officials said.
Obama, who has seen public confidence in his foreign policy skills plummet, addressed a world audience skeptical of U.S. commitment and intentions in the Middle East. The president engaged U.S. military power in Syria after resisting direct intervention for nearly three years in the civil war raging there and only after the conflict spread across the border to the Iraq.
Muslim leaders, he said, must lead the fight against sectarian division and the ideology of Al Qaeda and outgrowths like the Islamic State group.
“It is time for the world — especially Muslim communities — to explicitly, forcefully and consistently reject the ideology of organizations like Al Qaeda and ISIL,” he said, using an acronym for the group.
By day’s end, Obama came away with a modest triumph in his quest for support for his approach in fighting the extremists. The U.N.’s Security Council voted to crack down on international travel by people who go to Iraq and Syria to join militant groups and on the flow of financing to terrorists in the region.
The measure, designed to win international backing, stood in for a broader endorsement for the U.S. use of force within the sovereign nation of Syria. Such a proposal would probably be doomed because China and Russia, both friends of Syria, hold veto power on the panel.
Administration officials argued that its attacks on the militants are consistent with the U.N. charter because Iraq was under direct threat from militants in Syria and had sought U.S. assistance.
Some experts have said the assertion begged for an explanation, but Obama didn’t give it, at least not publicly. Senior advisors to the president say that the Khorasan Group, a terrorist cell also targeted by the U.S. air campaign, is focused on attacking in the West, but they’ve given few details beyond that.
A full day after the strikes against the Khorasan Group, U.S. officials said they weren’t sure what they had hit. One senior administration official said the bombings probably disrupted any plot Khorasan may have been devising.
At the U.N., Obama also met with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi, who described his plans for a new Iraqi national guard in which local communities would secure their territory once the militants are weakened, according to an account of the meeting given by a senior administration official. Abadi urged Obama and allies to speed up the delivery of promised weapons to rebuild his battered forces.
The day marked five years since Obama first addressed the General Assembly. In 2009, less than a year after being elected on a pledge to end war, he asked leaders to recognize that the yearning for peace is universal and to join him in resolve to end conflicts around the world.
A half-decade later, his message Wednesday nodded toward the same hopefulness, but underlying it was a tone that was more strident.
“We will use our military might in a campaign of airstrikes to roll back ISIL,” Obama warned. “We will train and equip forces fighting against these terrorists on the ground.... Those who have joined ISIL should leave the battlefield while they can.”
He also called out other aggressive acts around the world — singling out Russia’s backing of separatists in Ukraine for special derision — as part of a sweeping summons to action.
Obama acknowledged that the U.S. is far from perfect in living up to its ideals.
He noted that the world watched the unrest roiling Ferguson, Mo., this summer over the shooting of an unarmed young black man by a white police officer.
“Yes, we have our own racial and ethnic tensions,” he said. “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.”
The difference, he said, is that the U.S. welcomes the scrutiny of the world.
Save for that foray into domestic challenges, Obama used the day to tout the diplomatic victory of the international resolution against foreign fighters. The setting was also a reminder of how fleeting such moments are.
In his remarks before the body last year, Obama hailed his success winning an agreement from Syrian President Bashar Assad to dispose of the country’s chemical weapons stockpile. That breakthrough, Obama said, “should energize a larger diplomatic effort to reach a political settlement within Syria.”
The deal inspired no new push toward an end to the civil war there, a conflict U.S. now has thrust itself into.
“I do not believe that military action — by those within Syria, or by external powers — can achieve a lasting peace,” he said then.
Hennessey reported from the United Nations and Parsons from Washington. Times staff writer W.J. Hennigan in Washington contributed to this report.
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