The American President was the first to address the 69th session of the UN General Assembly.

It was a hard-hitting speech leaving little doubt that the US will be playing the role of a pro-active super power in the years to come along with partners. It amounts to, as New York Times has editorially stated, “a reassertion,” of America’s global leadership.

There is a “pervasive unease in our world”, said President Obama. There are “new dangers” to be dealt with.  He specifically referred to the “Russian aggression in Europe”, recalling the days when “large nations trampled small ones in pursuit of territorial ambition.”

Pointing out the “brutality of terrorists in Syria and Iraq,” he observed that it forced us to look into the heart of darkness. There was a choice to be made: to reaffirm collective responsibility to confront global problems or be swamped with more outbreaks of instability. His choice was clear: We see the world not as something out of control but as something we can shape for the better. He said, we must meet our responsibilities to observe and enforce international norms. Repudiating the preposition that might is right, he came down heavily on the Russian’s aggression in Ukraine. “We will impose a cost on Russia” he remarked.

In his speech, more than anything else he focused on the “cancer of terrorism”. He rejected the notion of the clash of civilizations and said that Islam taught peace. He denounced the “extremist ideology” and said that this challenge had to be met in four areas. These are: The IS must be degraded and ultimately destroyed. The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force. The US will work with a broad coalition to dismantle this “network of death.” No ground troops will be sent. Iraqis and Syrians will be supported to reclaim their communities. Two, the world and especially the Muslims must reject the ideology of organizations like Al-Qaeda and the IS. Funding that fuels this hatred must be cut off. Steps must be taken to counter extremism “by getting intolerance out of schools, stopping radicalization before it spreads and promoting institutions and programmes that build new bridges of understanding.” Third, the cycle of conflict, especially sectarian that creates conditions for terrorism must be addressed. America will remain “engaged” in the region in Syria and Iraq. The lasting solution to Syria’s civil war is political. Fourth, the countries of the Arab and Muslim world must focus on the extraordinary potential of their people, especially the youth. Young people need tools to succeed—good schools, education in math and science, the economy that nurtures creativity and entrepreneurship. America will provide partnership.

Some of the other points made by Obama in his address may be noted as follows:

The task of rejecting extremism and sectarianism is a generational one.

We will neither tolerate terrorist safe heavens nor act as an occupying power. 

We will take action against threats to our security and our allies while building an architecture of counter-terrorism cooperation.

The United States will never shy away from defending “our” interests.

It would be relevant here to reflect also the views expressed by the Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, in his address at the General Assembly. He was candid enough to put the blame on the West saying that extremism and anti-west sentiment is the “result of the west’s strategic blunders in the region.” According to him, extremism has over time emerged from colonialism. He attributed the rise of militants to “certain intelligence agencies”. While referring to US air strikes, he said that the solution for stopping them must come from the Middle East.

Readers may also note that a resolution was unanimously passed on international counter-terrorism in the UN Security Council Summit, on 24th September 2014. The meeting was chaired by President Obama. Legally binding, the new resolution establishes the following obligations for member states:

— Prevent and suppress the recruiting, organizing, transporting, or equipping of foreign terrorist fighters, as well as the financing of their travel or activities;

— Prevent the movement of terrorists or terrorist groups through their territory, and ensure that their domestic laws allow for the prosecution of those who attempt to do so;

— Help build the capacity of states on the frontlines of this fight;

— Strengthen cooperation between nations, including sharing information on the travel and activities of foreign terrorist fighters;

— Respect human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law.

There is much to ponder over in President Obama’s speech, President Rouhani’s remarks and the contents of the new Security Council Resolution. Pakistan which has been engaged in a protracted war against terrorism needs to carefully note the meanings between-the-lines of the US President’s declaration to remain engaged in the fight against terrorism and also the implications of the new resolution’s binding obligations.

It has to be realized and emphasized that the world of Islam is facing multi-dimensional challenges. Think tanks in all the Muslim countries especially in the Middle East, South West and Central Asia must undertake in depth exercises to identify the causes of their backwardness and instability. Military operations to defeat and destroy terrorist groups are only a partial answer to the deep rooted disease and disorder Muslim societies are suffering from. There is need for a renaissance and a continuing reform of institutions. Social changes have to come into play before democracy can take root in these countries.

There has to be an alteration in attitudes and a transformation of mindsets.

While Obama’s plea for more and better education in Muslim societies is well taken to address the scourge of extremism and terrorism, the blame doesn’t entirely rest with the countries in question. The overweening selfish interventions on the part of western powers have also contributed towards the decrepitude, disorder and institutional fragility prevailing in erstwhile colonial societies. Ill conceived policies and corrupt dealings on the part of the ruling elite in most Muslim countries have much to do with the unstable and insecure conditions prevailing there. All sorts of frustrations lead to undesirable thinking and activities including extremism. Wise leaders must undertake reform and move towards the goals of a progressive society. Necessary military operations to dismantle the outposts of terrorism must be accompanied and followed by well thought-out, sustained political economic and social initiatives.

    The writer is an ex-federal secretary and ambassador, and a freelance political and international relations analyst.