At the UN, Obama Takes the Long View on ISIS

The highlight of President Obama’s third and final day at the United Nations was a summit he hosted on countering violent extremism. This meeting was called as a followup to last year’s Security Council session chaired personally by President Obama, which resulted in a sweeping resolution calling for countries to prevent foreign fighters from flowing to the Syrian and Iraqi battlefields and to implement measures to reduce the attractiveness of violent extremism through various prevention activities.

Over the year, progress has not been as sweeping as the resolution would have envisaged. Ban Ki Moon cited a 70% increase in the number of foreign fighters flocking to combat zones. And where there has been progress, it seems to be incremental.  In a fact sheet released today, the White House acknowledges as much:

More than two dozen Coalition partners, led by the United States, have contributed to the military campaign in Iraq and Syria, conducting over 7,200 air strikes to date and training and providing equipment and ammunition to local partners.  As a result, ISIL has lost the ability to operate freely in 20-25 percent of the populated territory it held one year ago in Iraq and Syria.  In Syria, Kurdish and Arab partners—with Coalition support—have cut off ISIL’s access to all but 68 miles of the 600-mile long Syria-Turkey border, which is an important step toward preventing FTF travel and squeezing ISIL supply lines.

In his remarks opening the summit Obama offered what might have been his clearest articulation of US strategy to counter violent extremism — very firmly embracing incrementalism in the kinetic and ideological fight against ISIS.  And it can be reduced to one word, said four times: “ultimately.”


I believe what we have here today is the emergence of a global movement that is united by the mission of degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL.

And here:

Ultimately, however, it is not going to be enough to defeat ISIL in the battlefield.  We have to prevent it from radicalizing, recruiting and inspiring others to violence in the first place.  And this means defeating their ideology.  Ideologies are not defeated with guns, they’re defeated by better ideas — a more attractive and compelling vision.

And most importantly here:

 But, ultimately, I am optimistic.  In Iraq and in Syria, ISIL is surrounded by communities, countries and a broad international coalition committed to its destruction.  We’ve seen that ISIL can be defeated on the battlefield, where there is sound organization and a government and military that is coordinating with this coalition and with our diplomatic efforts.  And here at this summit, we’re seeing a new global movement to counter the violent extremism that ISIL needs to survive.

Like terrorists and tyrants throughout history, ISIL will eventually lose because it has nothing to offer but suffering and death.  And when you look at the reports of those who are laboring under their control, it is a stark and brutal life that does not appeal to people over the long term.  So we will ultimately prevail because we are guided by a stronger, better vision:  a commitment to the security, opportunity and dignity of every human being.  But it will require diligence, focus and sustained effort by all of us.  And I am grateful that all of you who are already participating are committed to this work.

What the President outlined was a strategy of containment, both on the battlefield and in the grander struggle against the allure of violent extremism among would-be recruits.

The venue Obama has chosen to articulate this vision is instructive.

Later this year, Ban Ki Moon is expected to roll out a system-wide policy review in which principles of countering violent extremism are mainstreamed into the day-to-day work of various UN agencies. Every UN agency, from UNICEF to UNDP, will undertake activities that directly or indirectly are intended to reduce the allure of extremism. We can likely also expect this “CVE Plan of Action”  to include concrete recommendations to member states on the front lines.

In remarks to the G7 this summer, Ban Ki Moon stressed the UN’s unique approach to this question: “Missiles may kill terrorists. But I am convinced that good governance is what will kill terrorism,” Mr. Ban said.

If containment is the strategy, good governance is the tactic that will eventually suck the air from groups like ISIS, al Shebaab and Boko Haram. The USA and the UN are betting on it.