To build a coalition against Islamic State, U.S. must try a little humility

September 25, 2014

U.S. President Barack Obama chairs the U.N. Security Council summit in New York

When President Barack Obama assumed the presidency of the United Nations Security Council Wednesday, he summoned the full weight of U.S. power to a cause with seeming universal appeal: defeating the barbarism of Islamic State — or, as Obama calls the militant group, Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIL).

Much of the world, however, will question how Washington can hope to achieve this without launching a wider political agenda for accountable government in the failing states of the Arab world.

They seek U.S. recognition of the diversity of legitimate interests represented today in the Security Council chamber — and of the wider diffusion of power and capital that defines this age. In short, they look for an American president who can see the world through a genuine pluralist prism.

What they hear, however, is talk of yet another global expeditionary mission driven largely by U.S. foreign and domestic politics. More than a failure of will, intelligence or even strategy, the Obama administration’s foreign policy seems marked by a failure of imagination. This will doom the White House’s attempts to forge a sustainable global alliance.

U.S. President Obama meets in New York with representatives of Arab nations that contributed in air strikes against Islamic State targets in SyriaWhat makes this failure so tragic is the lost opportunity to rethink the design of global partnerships in the midst of an expanding archipelago of diverging power, values and interests. Yet the interests of the key powers are actually more aligned than they appear to be on issues ranging from Syria to the wider Middle East, from Ukraine to East Asia.

What’s needed in each case is a new strategy that begins — and doesn’t end — with consulting all the crucial parties that have a role to play in these conflicts. One that forges a mission in which every country has a stake, no matter how disparate their starting points may be.

Consider: In Syria, only President Bashar al-Assad and Islamic State have an interest in seeing the country destroyed. A return to the policy of creating a transition to broad-based government set out by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan two years ago could still bring together the United States, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

In the battle against Islamic State, virtually every nation — even those whose financial support contributed to the extremists’ rise — now recognizes that a metastasizing militant group that is highly disciplined and well-armed is a threat to all.

In Ukraine, the polarized positions of both Moscow and the West aside, a basic compromise has always been apparent. It would recognize the reality of Ukraine’s ties to Russia, but enable Kiev to escape the trap of a failed state.

And in East Asia, the rivalry between China and Japan is not one that either side wants to see escalate into war. But the solution requires Washington to act as a “pacific power” that will also recognize the interests, history and values of both China and Japan.

Obama signs America's Promise Summit Declaration in WashingtonAn alliance of diverse, sometimes contrasting, value systems, agendas and national perspectives is no contradiction in terms. Indeed, it is only kind of alliance that reflects today’s fragmenting global landscape — and can summon common purpose among diverse parties.

On Feb. 5, 2003, another U.S. leader, Secretary of State Colin Powell, staked his unique global standing on the claim that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. I was in the Security Council chamber that day and vividly recall the contrast between the power of Powell’s rhetoric and the weakness of his case — and the gnawing suspicion that he didn’t believe his own words.

What the United States lost on that fateful day — and in the calamitous war that followed — was the benefit of the doubt. Recovering that singular global asset may be possible. But turning back the clock to a world of unipolar dominance is not.

Pluralism remains America’s strength at home. A new diplomacy of pluralism can be America’s strength abroad. But only if Washington has the confidence and imagination to abandon, finally, the costly illusion of unipolarity and embrace the opportunity to lead as first among equals.

PHOTO (TOP): President Barack Obama chairs the U.N. Security Council summit in New York September 24, 2014. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

PHOTO (INSERT 1): President Barack Obama meets in New York with representatives of the five Arab nations that contributed in air strikes against Islamic State targets in Syria, September 23, 2014. Sitting next to Obama are Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Former Secretary of State Colin Powell stands over President Barack Obama during the signing of America’s Promise Summit Declaration at the White House in Washington, September 22, 2014. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

6 comments

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Thank you Mr. Mousavizadeh. You excellently describe the real pitfalls of the U.S. bombing of the ISIS. Obama and most of the U.S. media give Obama a celebratory “thumbs up” applause, but there is more than meets the eye! The Chicago Tribune here in Chicago reveals a report by the Syrian Women activist group that exposes many deaths of women and children, not seen anywhere else in online news on the ISIS bombing. Then, there is the façade of the war, the Great Obama Coalition of Arab allies that actually doesn’t exist. Simply stated, the Arabs Gulf allies allowed the U.S. to claim that they are participants on the ISIS bombing, whereas they certainly aren’t because they have created and funded the ISIS. If anything, the U.S., Turkey, and Qatar and Sudan are at war among themselves in the Libyan internal conflict.

I believe that in Obama’s hurry to impress the world with his military might, and scare the Taliban in Afghanistan – as well as the Libyan National Salvation Front that has nearly annihilated the U.S. mercenary Khalifa Hiftar’s group in Libya, Obama started with a “shock and awe” bombing in Syria that is causing unnecessary civilian casualties. In every war, avoiding civilian casualties is a priority in both international law and all Human Rights Conventions. But the way Obama is contacting his Syria bombing is “a scorched earth” bombing policy with very little regard for the local population in the area.

Ernest Hemingway had this view of war: “In a war, you will die like a dog for no good reason!” I am sure most of the world will be happy to see the ISIS jihadists die like dogs, but killing plenty of civilians in the process to brag about your sweeping success against the ISIS is in itself a crime! Nikos Retsos, retired professor

Posted by Nikos_Retsos | Report as abusive

We think we can solve problems because we have a superb wrecking crew.

Posted by wpgger | Report as abusive

“PLuralism” in war as in life in general doesn’t work. Period. As Otto von Bismarck said so famously, “In every alliance there is a horse and there is a rider.” The problem with Mr. Obama’s leadership has been that he HASN’T been LEADING. I recall that curious formula of his which amounts to leading from BEHIND. The U.S. needs to lead and if others follow, all to the good: if they don’t, tough. ISIS needs to be stopped and YES we remain the world’s policemen. If not us, who?

Posted by StevenPiper | Report as abusive

I fail to see any practical policy proposals whatsoever for achieving any of these grandiose and far reaching objectives, especially regarding the Ukraine and the Middle East. How on earth can the U.S. create “accountable governments” in the failed states of the Middle East, a region awash in autocracy, corruption, sectarian intolerance, and the subordination of women? And why would that be an American responsibility or undertaking

Posted by Cassiopian | Report as abusive

Yes, but how about American exceptionalism.

Posted by Leftcoastrocky | Report as abusive

Bush and Cheney probably forced Powell to tell his lies. (Powell should have resigned.)

Posted by Leftcoastrocky | Report as abusive