Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

KPBS Midday Edition

Obama At U.N.: World Risks Being Caught In 'Undertow Of Instability'

Obama At U.N.: World Risks Being Caught In ‘Undertow Of Instability’
Obama At U.N.: World Risks Being Caught In 'Undertow Of Instability'
Obama At U.N.: World Risks Being Caught In 'Undertow Of Instability' GUESTS:Avi Spiegel, Ph.D. assistant professor of political science and international relations at the University of San Diego. Hanif Mohebi, executive director CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, San Diego Chapter

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Our top story on Midday Edition, President Obama spoke before the global community today denouncing what he called the cancer of violent extremism: [AUDIO FILE PLAYING] SPEAKER4: 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. The United States America will work with a broad coalition to dismantle this network of death. [ END AUDIO FILE ] MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: In a pointed speech at the UN General assembly, the president called on the world and Muslim leaders to reject ideology of groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS. The speech took place while the US and Arab allies prepare more airstrikes against ISIS and other terror groups in Syria. US military leaders say they airstrikes are just the beginning of a prolonged campaign that may last for months. I would like to welcome my guests Avi Spiegel and Hanif Mohebi. What is your reaction to the president's remarks about ISIS and violent extremism in the Middle East? HANIF MOHEBI: I think the president was right in that it needs to be eradicated. A couple of points need to be stressed. Number one, this group has nothing to do with Islam and Muslims. It is essentially a terrorist group. We would love to see how we can deal with it, but the broader question we can come up with later, what is our specific goals, and how are we going to resolve this? MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Avi, your general reaction to the president's remarks? AVI SPIEGEL: Hanif is right. Just because we are at war with a group called the Islamic state does not mean it has anything to do with Islam. It is not. Second, I liked about how he talked about the opportunities facing young Muslims in the Arab world. We need to do more to grow those opportunities. Hanif is also right, there are a lot of questions that remain unanswered today. The president talks about a strategy to degrade and destroy ISIS. Virtually, his rhetoric is about destroying ISIS, but the action on the ground is more about degrading. The question remains, will we destroy ISIS? MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me pick up on what you said, that seemed like one of the points that President Obama was trying to get across. Even as he pointed out that he was specific about this being a Muslim extremist threat, he pointed out he rejected the Clash of civilizations idea. Does that message resonate? HANIF MOHEBI: It does. Essentially we want to make sure we stay away from connecting the religion of Islam and Muslims to this ideology, because then we are essentially going at war over 1.2 billion people around the world. We definitely do not want to do that. To be frank, a majority of the Muslims are against this. In fact, I will say over 90% of the Muslims are against this extremism, and even before the US took action, there were groups within Syria that were fighting ISIS already. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And yet the president was more specific than he has been in the past to locate where he feels the threat of terrorism is coming from the Middle East, and he called especially on Muslim communities to reject the ideology of extremism, to cut off the funding that fuels the hatred. That was a quote from his speech today. Who was that phrase directed towards? HANIF MOHEBI: I think it is political rhetoric more than anything else. The reality on the ground is much more complex. I love what the Central Command Army General Lloyd James Austin said about Syria. He said it was the most challenging and complex situation he has seen in his thirty-eight years of military service. It is not black and white, it is not simple. In fact, what I see is to monsters, not one. We have ISIS, which we are gladly trying to look into and see if we can deal with and eradicate it. But the bigger monster we are avoiding, and that is the Assad regime. It has killed over 200,000 of the Muslims, and Syrians there. The Syrian community essentially looks at this as a puzzle. They are like yes, this is awkward. You will come and essentially attack ISIS, but ignore the government that was maybe responsible for creating that power vacuum that created ISIS. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to talk a lot more about the complexities on the ground in Syria, because they are many and varied. It just to hang on to the president's speech for a moment longer, that phrase to cut off the funding that fuels the hate. The president said that these countries cannot profit from the global community, from the global economy, and fund groups that want to shut down the global economy and threaten countries around the world. AVI SPIEGEL: Absolutely. The irony here is rich, in the previous aircraft the president talks about how important it is to assemble a broad coalition of Arab allies. That includes countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, UA, countries that are helping us militarily, but also quietly behind the scenes, not doing enough to stop the funding of terrorist money. The president was right to talk about that, I hope he takes action legally, regulatory, and diplomatically, to stop that funding. That funding is crucial. Also, ISIS is able to fund itself largely due to oil money. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: He also warned that those fighting with ISIS should leave the battlefield while they can. What does that tell you about the new air war against targets in Syria? Is it going to be expended, will it go on for a long time? AVI SPIEGEL: First, the president is talking to future recruits. There are recruits coming from all over North Africa, and from countries all throughout the region. There is a big push at the UN to cut them recruits and put into place regulations that stop the movement of recruits and their return to countries. Those are destabilizing when they return to countries, and we have seen that in Algeria, Libya, etc. The question is, who is going to be bombed and where? We are bombing ISIS sites and sites related to another group that poses more of a risk to the US in Syria. There are number of different groups in Syria, and there is a maze of acronyms and groups who are allies, trends, enemies, who supports Assad, the Iraqi government, and Iran. This is a complicated maze of groups. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Hanif? HANIF MOHEBI: First and foremost, in any war there is going to be risk of killing civilians. It is very important that we keep civilian deaths to the minimum. I posted today I was going to come here, and if anyone had any thoughts, that I must share. Someone pointed out there is already reports of civilian deaths. He mentioned one civilian death could equal two to three recruits, so we have to be very careful of that. That is one aspect of it. The other aspect is that we must see the larger picture that the Syrian community and that regional community sees, but we tend to ignore. That is our policy we must change before we point fingers saying they need to essentially eradicate the miss him. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Give us an example of a counterproductive policy. HANIF MOHEBI: When it comes to Syria, we have decided not to deal with the Syrian government directly. We avoided that, and it has been long overdue. In Iraq, our essentially sectarian policies, we put Al-Maliki in charge, who chose to be sectarian and chose to take vengeance of the people, and target Sunnis that are largely being killed both by ISIS and the government. They have no choice. What are you going to choose? Which one? That is what fuels recruits, that is what magnifies the problem. If we want to really focus on resolving the problem, we need to look at the endgame and come up with a comprehensive strategic political plan. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Is our situation in leading these airstrikes helped by the fact that this seems to be a coalition for other Arab nations? Is that strengthening our position and leading to fewer recruits and ramifications in that area by these airstrikes? AVI SPIEGEL: It certainly helps diplomatically and geopolitically. To a certain extent it helps the hearts and minds on the ground. The idea of the United States as an imperial foreign power intervening in the sovereign domestic affairs of an Arab countries polymeric to Arabs on the ground. There are fears of Iraq, Libya, there are long histories there. Forming that broad coalition is of course helpful. But the fundamental fact is that it is an extremely allocated situation on the ground. Will these airstrikes help or hinder President Assad? In Iraq, the situation was easier. It is a government that supported the United States, an ally of the United States, and the government asked for United States military intervention. That is a different case in Syria, no matter how unpopular President Assad is. Let's make no mistake, President Assad is a brutal authoritarian tyrant who slaughtered hundreds of thousands of his own people just like his father before him. He is not a popular figure in the region, but nevertheless, the United States has a high bar across to begin airstrikes. The fact is, there is a big question to whether or not these airstrikes will strengthen or weaken President Assad. The irony here is that Assad is an enemy of hours, but these airstrikes are actually going after enemies of Assad himself. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Hanif, a caller left a message with one of our producers, and asked if we should be looking for alternatives to violence, rather than focusing on the airstrikes and the military operation now underway in Syria. In his speech, resident Obama said that there is no way to deal with these terror organizations except by violent, through force. Where are we, where do you see that balance? HANIF MOHEBI: I believe war is not the answer, and should not be used as much as we can, we should stay away from it. However, there are times that essentially nationstates that have conscience, and have to deal with certain aggression and terrorist groups, or groups in general that are extreme, I will give the example of the Assad regime. How are we going to essentially respond to a regime that has killed over 200,000 of his own people? Are we going to deal with him peacefully, especially if he is not willing to work with us or the United Nations? MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Given the complexity that both of you have outlined within Syria, how do we know if airstrikes or anything we do there are going to be ultimately successful? AVI SPIEGEL: We don't. The fact of the matter is, anybody who says they know who will be in charge of Syria a year from now is lying. Foreign interventions are not easy, simple, or straightforward. Look what happened in Libya when we dethroned Gaddafi, there is chaos there. Look at what is happening in Yemen, we aided the military and there is chaos in Yemen. There is chaos in Iraq ten years later with a military unable to stop terrorist incursions in the North. Foreign intervention is not easy or straightforward. Fact is, Syria, as we move closer towards Damascus and Syria, it gets even more consultative. We're talking about international allies, the United States, Iran, the Soviet Union, Lebanon, Hezbollah, ISIS moving into Jordan and the northern border of Israel. It is what makes the Middle East fascinating to study, but perpetually difficult to make policy decisions about. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Today we got word that ISIS has beheaded another Western hostage, a Frenchman kidnapped in Algeria this weekend. What do you think the objective of barbaric terror attacks like these, what is the objective? Is there a sense that ISIS is trying to prod Western powers, or other nations into conflict? HANIF MOHEBI: I personally feel we are part of the problem that creates these beheadings. What I mean by that is we have given so much PR and credit to those who have used such tactics. Essentially, there are groups that now I may be using this as a political strategy. Think about it, Assad can kill 200,000 people, and no one cares. But someone can be head if you individuals, and they were essentially be a threat to the world, and they would be all over the news. A lot of credit has been given. I am not for any violence whatsoever, beheading is against any religion or any human conscience. I am not trying to justify in any way, shape, or form. However, we should not be the PR form for thugs, and terrorists, and we should not magnify something more. We had Al Qaeda as the monster we had to deal with, and now that threat is dying. It is almost like we are trying to create another monster that we can scare everybody to pursue. We have to be careful with that. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And yet Al Qaeda attacked America and killed thousands. AVI SPIEGEL: Absolutely. I think the facts on the ground RPR. I do not think we are the problem, I think the fact is, the actions of groups at ISIS is the problem. And Hanif is right to say that. There is a massive humanitarian crISIS underway in Syria and Iraq. Nine of the 22 million people in Syria are refugees or internally displaced people without homes, on the move without food or proper shelter. That is a humanitarian crISIS, but it is also a destabilizing crISIS moving into Turkey and Iraq. And there are other groups like the Yaziti, Assyrians, and the Shabak. Groups that because of ISIS may no longer exist when our children are growing up. It is not just a question of force, or military, or bogeyman. There are real humanitarian and human rights crISIS on the ground. These are terrorists and they need to be stopped. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I am out of time, thank you both so much for this conversation.

President Obama told a gathering of the U.N. General Assembly today that the world is living in "pervasive unease" from such crises as terrorism, expansionism and the Ebola epidemic. He challenged the world body to fix the international system or risk being "pulled back by an undertow of instability."

"We come together at a crossroads between war and peace, between disorder and integration, between fear and hope," the president told member nations at U.N. headquarters in New York.

"I often tell young people in the United States that despite the headlines, this is the best time in human history to be born, when you are more likely than ever before to be literate, to be healthy and to be free to pursue your dreams," Obama said. "And yet 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."


Obama challenged the assembly to "renew the international system that has enabled so much progress."

"We can reaffirm our collective responsibility to confront global problems, or be swamped by more and more outbreaks of instability," he said. "For America, the choice is clear. We choose hope over fear."

The following are some highlights from the president's address.

Terrorism And Extremism: 'No God Condones Terror'

"With access to technology that allows small groups to do great harm, they have embraced a nightmarish vision that would divide the world into adherents and infidels — killing as many innocent civilians as possible; and employing the most brutal methods to intimidate people within their communities."


"Muslims the world over aspire to live with dignity and a sense of justice. And when it comes to America and Islam, there is no us and them — there is only us, because millions of Muslim Americans are part of the fabric of our country."

"No God condones this terror. No grievance justifies these actions. 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."

"[We] do not act alone. Nor do we intend to send U.S. troops to occupy foreign lands."

"The ideology of ISIL or al-Qaida or Boko Haram will wilt and die if it is consistently exposed, confronted and refuted in the light of day."

"[The] countries of the Arab and Muslim world must focus on the extraordinary potential of their people — especially the youth. Here I'd like to speak directly to young people across the Muslim world. You come from a great tradition that stands for education, not ignorance; innovation, not destruction; the dignity of life, not murder. Those who call you away from this path are betraying this tradition, not defending it."

"Where women are full participants in a country's politics or economy, societies are more likely to succeed. That's why we support the participation of women in parliaments and in peace processes, in schools and the economy."

Russia And Ukraine: U.S. 'On Right Side Of History'

"We will impose a cost on Russia for aggression, and counter falsehoods with the truth. We call upon others to join us on the right side of history — for while small gains can be won at the barrel of a gun, they will ultimately be turned back if enough voices support the freedom of nations and peoples to make their own decisions."

The Ebola Epidemic: 'Need Broader Effort'

"As we speak, America is deploying our doctors and scientists — supported by our military — to help contain the outbreak of Ebola and pursue new treatments. But we need a broader effort to stop a disease that could kill hundreds of thousands, inflict horrific suffering, destabilize economies, and move rapidly across borders. It's easy to see this as a distant problem – until it isn't. That is why we will continue mobilizing other countries to join us in making concrete commitments to fight this outbreak, and enhance global health security for the long-term."

Climate Change

"America is pursuing ambitious reductions in our carbon emissions, and we have increased our investments in clean energy. We will do our part, and help developing nations to do theirs. But we can only succeed in combating climate change if we are joined in this effort by every major power. That's how we can protect this planet for our children and grandchildren."

Iran's Nuclear Program

"America is pursuing a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue, as part of our commitment to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and pursue the peace and security of a world without them. This can only happen if Iran takes this historic opportunity. My message to Iran's leaders and people is simple: Do not let this opportunity pass."

Global Poverty

"America is committed to a development agenda that eradicates extreme poverty by 2030. We will do our part — to help people feed themselves, power their economies and care for their sick. If the world acts together, we can make sure that all of our children can enjoy lives of opportunity and dignity."

Disputes In Asian Waters

"America is and will continue to be a Pacific power, promoting peace, stability and the free flow of commerce among nations. But we will insist that all nations abide by the rules of the road, and resolve their territorial disputes peacefully, consistent with international law. That's how the Asia-Pacific has grown. And that's the only way to protect this progress going forward."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit