A year ago, when President Obama took the dais at the UN General Assembly, his speech focused on Iran’s nuclear program, Syria’s chemical weapons, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He talked about Egypt’s messy transition to democracy and defended America’s actions in Libya.
A year on, Obama’s mind is elsewhere.
Now the president’s focus is on ISIS, the extremist Islamic group that has captured wide swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria. The group, also known as ISIL or Islamic State, was virtually unknown a year ago except as part of the extremist opposition to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
How do some of the other issues Obama discussed in his 2013 U.N. General Assembly speech look through today’s lens?
2013: “The world is more stable than it was five years ago. But even a glance at today’s headlines indicates that dangers remain.”
“As recent debates within the United States over Syria clearly show, the danger for the world is not an America that is too eager to immerse itself in the affairs of other countries or to take on every problem in the region as its own. The danger for the world is that the United States, after a decade of war – rightly concerned about issues back home, aware of the hostility that our engagement in the region has engendered throughout the Muslim world – may disengage, creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill. I believe such disengagement would be a mistake. I believe America must remain engaged for our own security. But I also believe the world is better for it.
“We will dismantle terrorist networks that threaten our people. Wherever possible, we will build the capacity of our partners, respect the sovereignty of nations, and work to address the root causes of terror. But when it’s necessary to defend the United States against terrorist attack, we will take direct action.”
ISIS got nary a mention.
Today: “There is a pervasive unease in our world – a sense that the very forces that have brought us together have created new dangers and made it difficult for any single nation to insulate itself from global forces.
“We have not confronted forcefully enough the intolerance, sectarianism, and hopelessness that feeds violent extremism in too many parts of the globe. As we look to the future, one issue risks a cycle of conflict that could derail…progress: and that is the cancer of violent extremism that has ravaged so many parts of the Muslim world.”
This year, ISIS occupied center stage.
2013: “Five years ago, nearly 180,000 Americans were serving in harm’s way, and the war in Iraq was the dominant issue in our relationship with the rest of the world. Today, all of our troops have left Iraq.”
Today: “Iraq has come perilously close to plunging back into the abyss.”
In pursuit of ISIS, America has resumed air strikes in Iraq and expanded them to Syria. While Obama has vowed not to send U.S. troops back to combat in Iraq, there are some 1,600 U.S. forces in the region in advise-and-assist roles. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said recently that it’s possible America will have to put boots on the ground if it is to defeat ISIS. Dempsey’s comments were quickly disavowed by the White House.
2013: “America and others have worked to bolster the moderate opposition, but extremist groups have still taken root to exploit the crisis. The notion that Syria can somehow return to a prewar status quo is a fantasy. It’s time for Russia and Iran to realize that insisting on Assad’s rule will lead directly to the outcome that they fear: an increasingly violent space for extremists to operate.”