Saul Loeb / REUTERS

The falsehoods in President Obama’s speech on the Islamic State

US strategy would be very different if the White House truly cared about ‘€˜freedom, justice and dignity’

September 13, 2014 6:00AM ET

“I am not a crook.” “I didn’t inhale.” “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” “Iraq has weapons of mass destruction.” “Mission accomplished.” “America doesn’t torture.” “We stand for freedom, for justice, for dignity.”

Presidents lie. They lie about lots of things, big and small, to protect or enhance their power, that of the interests they most closely represent and that of the country they lead.

The “freedom, justice, dignity” phrase was spoken by President Barack Obama Wednesday night during his speech articulating his strategy to combat the Islamic State (IS). He put the sentiment slightly differently in a letter released to the media on the same day, writing, “This is American leadership at its best: We stand with people who fight for their own freedom.”

There can be no doubt that the president spoke untruths. The strategy he unveiled simply cannot be American leadership at its best. After trillions of dollars spent on the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and against “terrorism” worldwide, with whole countries laid waste, hundreds of thousands dead, thousands of U.S. soldiers with permanent traumatic injuries — after all this, another U.S. secretary of state is going from one authoritarian state to the next to build a new “coalition of the willing” to help “degrade and destroy” the monster that together we helped create.

We have already tried Obama’s “new” strategy, and it has already failed. The U.S. simply cannot defeat an ever-expanding terrorist movement by strengthening ties with corrupt, brutal and authoritarian regimes, which for decades, thanks to U.S. support, have been oppressing their citizens while enriching themselves beyond measure. If American leadership were truly about “freedom, justice and dignity,” partnering with such regimes would be a nonstarter, not a cornerstone of U.S. strategy.

No dignity, no peace

Who are the partners Obama referred to in his speech that will belong to the U.S. coalition? They are:

  • Jordan, whose human rights record is similarly risible. Its people lack freedom, justice and dignity, and there is little chance they’ll get it under its authoritarian system, which has been supported by the U.S. for decades.
  • Saudi Arabia, the designated training ground for the so-called moderate opposition, whose government is perhaps the world’s most undemocratic, brutal, repressive and corrupt, and for decades the font from which militantly conservative, chauvinistic and violent Islamism has spread around the globe. It is a country where rich women are not permitted to drive and poor migrant women and men are routinely beheaded publicly and then crucified. Consider further that Obama chose the eve of the 13th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks to entrust Saudi Arabia — home to 15 of the 19 hijackers, the unrepentant architects of one of the most violent forms of religious expression since the Middle Ages and the single most important counterrevolutionary force in the Arab world — with the training of “moderate” Syrian opposition forces.
  • Turkey, a major NATO ally, which has been uniquely culpable in the spread of the various Al-Qaeda offshoots in Syria and Iraq, allowing its border to become a trafficking zone not only for weapons and fighters but also for oil from Syrian wells and refineries now under the control of IS militants. Without Turkish collaboration at the highest levels, the IS would be little more than Al-Qaeda’s and Al-Shabab’s slightly crazier cousin.

These are Obama’s partners, his “coalition of the willing,” which Secretary of State John Kerry hopes will help control borders and cut off terrorist financing. One would be hard pressed to find a group of countries less dedicated to freedom, justice and dignity. Obama is a very smart man and knows these facts, as evidenced in his famous “New Beginnings” speech in Cairo in 2009, in which he honestly discussed the impact of European colonialism, American imperialism and Arab authoritarianism. Sadly, that speech marked the first and last time he focused on democracy promotion as a goal of U.S. policy. How can there be peace, justice and dignity without democracy? 

The Islamic State will be impossible to ‘degrade and ultimately destroy’ unless the local, regional and international conditions that gave it birth and in which it thrives are addressed.

The IS and Islam

This brings us to the second major untruth of Obama’s speech: Perhaps trying to outdo President George W. Bush’s famous “Islam is peace” declaration in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Obama declared, “ISIL [an acronym for another name for the IS] is not Islamic. No religion condones the killing of innocents.” He went on to juxtapose this with the further claim that “ISIL is certainly not a state … It is recognized by no government nor by the people it subjugates. ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.”

All these claims are demonstrably false but useful. By extracting the IS from Islam and from its cultural and social context, it can be described as merely a cancer that can be neatly and surgically extracted — in Obama’s language, “eradicated” — from our “common humanity” by the skillful application of just the right kind of force.

Of course, the truth is far messier. The IS is certainly Islamic. It is not the only or even the dominant form of Islam. But it is as real a form of expression of Islam as the violent and chauvinist Israeli settler movement is to Judaism or as extreme Hindu nationalism, Rahkine Buddhism and militant Christianity are to their religions in India, Myanmar and the United States.

Moreover, while foreign jihadis get most of the press, the reality is that the IS is grounded in local conditions across Syria and Iraq. As Al Jazeera America has extensively reported, the IS is focused quite heavily on governing — however roughly and violently — the territories under its control. In fact, the IS will be impossible to “degrade and ultimately destroy,” never mind treat or cure, unless the local, regional and international conditions that gave it birth and in which it thrives are addressed.

Warped ideologies

Among the goals of Obama’s IS strategy is “counter[ing] its warped ideology.” This is certainly a laudable end, but the Islamic State’s ideology is a warped response to the larger warped ideologies governing the world. The major global powers have proved unwilling to sacrifice the interests of their elites to those of our “common security [and] humanity” and to systems of governance that ensure peace, justice, dignity, freedom or democracy for the majority of humanity. The neoliberal world order has pushed a hyperconsumerist capitalism that is pushing the planet to the brink of environmental catastrophe while increasing global inequality to levels as disturbing as the CO2 concentrations in our atmosphere. With such norms governing the world, the violence, hatred and injustice of militant groups such as the IS should not surprise.

To be sure, the IS is extremely frightening and is a very real threat to the region as well as globally. It is a deadly virus, like Ebola, erupting out of the hinterlands to spread uncontrollably across societies too weakened by poverty, oppression, authoritarianism, corruption and sectarianism to offer much resistance to wreak havoc with the system as a whole. To eradicate it, the U.S. must address the conditions that led to its gestation.

The IS is, in effect, globalization’s golem, created and encouraged (wittingly or not) by the very forces that now seek to destroy it. Only a radical reimagining of our collective existence based on real justice, democracy and sustainable development — the very opposite of the current global system — will save us. Until Obama is willing to develop and at least try to implement a set of policies that could encourage such a transformation, his words should not be trusted. 

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at the University of California at Irvine and a distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. He is a co-editor, with Mathias Mossberg, of “One Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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