President Obama’s speech to the United Nations this week is worth reading to study the evolution of the president’s foreign policy views in response to new and continuing conflicts around the world. With respect to such crises as Russian aggression toward Ukraine, preventing a nuclear Iran, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the president reiterated his belief in finding cooperative, negotiated solutions:
This speaks to a central question of our global age: whether we will solve our problems together, in a spirit of mutual interests and mutual respect, or whether we descend into destructive rivalries of the past. When nations find common ground, not simply based on power, but on principle, then we can make enormous progress. And I stand before you today committed to investing American strength in working with nations to address the problems we face in the 21st century.
But when it comes to the latest threat presented by the surge of ISIL in Syria and Iraq, President Obama took a different tack:
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.
So what puts this group beyond the pale? Surely they are still human beings, and many of their followers are motivated by the same concerns as the rest of us. Is there no possibility of accommodating whatever legitimate interests they may have, and involving them in the political process? Not while their murderous actions disqualify them from the benefit of more civilized solutions, is President Obama’s answer.
While a lot of mediators and other peace advocates might find this answer disconcerting, many of us realize that not all problems are susceptible to a negotiated resolution, and that sometimes you do have to fight. (See Robert Mnookin’s book Bargaining with the Devil, which provides some case histories of when to fight and when to negotiate.)
Even though pressing forward with a military solution to this problem, President Obama was still careful to stress that he was not advocating war with Islam.
So we reject any suggestion of a clash of civilizations. Belief in permanent religious war is the misguided refuge of extremists who cannot build or create anything, and therefore peddle only fanaticism and hate. And it is no exaggeration to say that humanity’s future depends on us uniting against those who would divide us along fault lines of tribe or sect; race or religion.
The president took particular care to invite other Arab and Muslim nations to join in condemning the violent and extremist actions of groups like ISIL. The message: Choose sides not based on ethnic or religious identities, but based on whether you are willing to adhere to principles of human rights, self-determination and peaceful resolution of conflict. If you’re not willing to adhere to those basic principles, then you must expect the rest of the world to respond with force.
This message will not appeal to those who would divide us by ideology or ethnicity or nationality or religion. It rejects the world view that on one side are arrayed the forces of good (white, Christian, capitalist, or whatever other traits one wants to associate with that side) vs. on the other hand the mighty forces of evil (whether fascists, Communists, Muslims, dark, etc.) Instead the president is suggesting that we assemble from all regions and ideologies those who respect the ideals of peace and freedom, and together that far larger force will defeat the small and weak enemies of civilization.