Amid hypertight security at United Nations headquarters in New York, President Barack Obama told the packed mass of 100-plus global leaders meeting at the opening day of the 69th General Assembly session that the United States, in a current world of “pervasive unease,” cannot take on the fight against violent extremism and other serious international threats alone.
Throughout his long, pointed speech, Obama said in more ways than one that the world must stand collectively, and that the future was not something “out of our control,” but a place “we can shape for the better through concerted and collective effort.” By seizing the global setting of the UN, he sought to win support from the nations gathered before him to work together to help solve the dire problems ranging across the world today — problems that seem to grow exponentially by the hour.
Those problems, he cited, include ending violent extremism in the Middle East, where the US has begun airstrikes in Syria this week and continues aerial assaults in Iraq, a two-country locus of terrorism Obama called “the heart of darkness”; eliminating extreme poverty; containing the spread of Ebola in West Africa; countering Russia’s aggression in Europe through its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and its backing of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine; and controlling the rising effects of global warming.
At times, the speech relied on platitudes of hurrah for the UN and other such sentiments heard in past-year addresses by Obama at the world body’s big opening-debate day in late September. As he took the General Assembly dais second in line, as host nation to the UN, after Brazil, it was also assured that this year’s speech would be different, evoking more urgency than ever before. That sense of immediacy quickly came to the fore as he spoke, and no wonder, given the US’s surprising air attacks in the Middle East this week to stop the fast-moving rampage by ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) in the last several months.
Focusing mostly on the violence enveloping certain parts of the Middle East, Obama did not flinch from zeroing in on the problems of extreme Islamism and what countries must do in the region to create more balanced environments to stave off anarchy.
Reinforcing the value of the UN to unite countries against international threats to prosperity and peace — even quoting Eleanor Roosevelt and her role in drafting the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights decades ago — Obama dived directly into what he considered the other grave problems besides ISIS, starting with Russia (prompting the UN’s Webcam to sweep to the audience to capture the dogged frown of Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister).
In his concentrated language on Russia, Obama excoriated its claiming of Crimea as its own territory and its incitement of violent separatists in eastern Ukraine. He also referred to the shooting down of the Air Malaysia flight over Ukraine this summer (for which the US has blamed Russia), killing hundreds of civilians and leaving body parts uncollected for weeks.
Russia, he said, operates on a vision that “might makes right,” whereas Americans rely on a “right makes might” mind-set, adding that these are “simple truths, but they must be defended.”
Russia’s aggression has veered from the traditional paths of UN diplomacy and ideals, he noted, but he also allowed Russia a way out — including the possibility of the US lifting sanctions — if the country began to take a different approach toward its neighbors, such as honoring the cease-fire now in place in the contested eastern Ukraine.
Such cooperation, Obama said, reiterating his main theme, speaks to “a central question of our global age — whether we will solve our problems together, in a spirit of mutual interest and mutual respect, or whether we descend into the destructive rivalries of the past.”
Moving to the topic of Ebola, the disease killing hundreds of people a day in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone in West Africa — where notoriously weak, corrupt countries stay beholden to such special interests as industrial mining but set low priorities on the health of their citizens, especially women — Obama reminded the leaders sitting before him, hushed and attentive in the newly renovated General Assembly Hall, that all nations must pitch in to remedy the Ebola crisis.
“It’s easy to see it as a distant problem — until it is not,” he said.
Then, turning up the heat, Obama saved his most specific condemnation for the terrorist group ISIS, which the US is now bombing at its Syrian core with some help from five Arab countries (and whom Obama calls ISIL, the alternative name, for Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). Referring to the “cancer of violent extremism” rocking the Middle East, he called on members of the UN to take responsibility to counter such extremism and observe international norms — at which point he digressed to the Security Council resolution that the US planned to usher through voter approval later in the day. Its aim is to authorize more international laws to combat terrorism, such as encouraging countries to prosecute individuals who join terrorist groups abroad.
Singling out ISIS further, Obama said that it was a “lethal and ideological brand of terrorists who have perverted one of the world’s great religions,” and though the US will never be at war against Islam, he added, ISIS, with its beheadings, starvation, rape, crucifixions and other atrocities, is not a religious entity that any “God condones.”
Sounding like a stern and almost exasperated father, Obama said it was time for the world, “especially the Muslim communities,” to reject the ideology of ISIS and Al Qaeda and devise more employment and educational opportunities for youths to help them turn away from radical movements.
Obama finished his speech in this tenor of strong, direct talk, paraphrasing Eleanor Roosevelt on human rights, saying that they begin close to home. Obama then left the dais to shake hands with the trio of UN officials sitting at the podium behind him, paused in the post-speech chair nearby and released a wide but constrained smile, caught between optimism and reality.
That dichotomy followed immediately, as Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, spoke next. His country’s harsh laws against individual sexual rights have shocked many countries worldwide, so his presence clarified how the world will most likely teeter between a universe of forward, tolerant thinking and backward, retrograde intentions.
We welcome your comments on this article. What are your thoughts?
Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.