President Obama takes charge at the United Nations

President Obama has been criticized, at times unfairly, for not taking a more assertive role in foreign policy, but this week in an appearance at the United Nations General Assembly he answered his critics well and profoundly.

On Wednesday, Obama called for the enlightened nations of the world to follow the United States’ lead in fighting terrorism, which he called “the cancer of violent extremism that has ravaged so many parts of the Muslim world.” Indeed, the growing “Islamic State,” also called ISIS and ISIL, is a global threat that must be addressed, and to combat it effectively will take more than the efforts of the U.S. and its immediate allies.

More than 40 nations, the president said, have joined the fight, and he attempted to enlist all U.N. members. The Islamic State’s aim to terrorize the world with violence is no mystery, beyond the hideous beheadings of late. The currency of ISIS is fear, pure and simple, and the president’s words of defiance and determination were welcome.

“At this crossroads,” Obama said, “I can promise you that the United States of America will not be distracted or deterred from what must be done. We are heirs to a proud legacy of freedom, and we are prepared to do what is necessary to secure that legacy for generations to come.”

Unity theme echoed

The president noted that in addition to joining together to fight the Islamic State, the allies have punished Russia with sanctions after its intervention in Ukraine and have tried to get Iran to stem its nuclear program.

Of no small note is the worldwide effort to curb the outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also took the stage Wednesday to call for unity of U.N. members in a crisis of huge proportions that sounded some of the same themes as Obama’s address.

Ki-moon called for the leaders of nations to find “seeds of hope” to help refugees from countries that have oppressed them and worse.

“Not since the end of the Second World War,” he said, “have there been so many refugees, displaced people and asylum seekers. Never before has the United Nations been asked to reach so many people with emergency food assistance and other life-saving supplies.”

U.N. and terrorism

Other leaders, including those from Jordan and Turkey, talked about the need to help hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria. Some 1.4 million Syrians are in Jordan.

Obama and Ki-moon were part of a General Assembly meeting focused on Islamic extremism. As the president and the secretary general spoke, a French hiker was beheaded by those extremists in Algeria.

One aim of those who spoke at the U.N. meeting was to raise the consciousness of members to the need to update the U.N.’s mission, to aim it toward terrorism and also illegal immigration and women’s rights and other issues reflecting the challenges in a more modern world.

Obama properly focused on terrorism, however. Some of the news on that front is chilling: The National Counterterrorism Center says 15,000 fighters from as many as 80 countries have tried to join the Islamic State. That organization also is joined by others affiliated with al-Qaida.

Obama no doubt will get the standard criticism from the Republican right, the group that believes everything he does is wrong. But in battling terrorism, the president’s long-time political foes should be able to join him. This is a crisis for all, and it is a fight for all.

Yes, there are times when politics must be put aside for the good of the country and, in this case, for the good of the world. That doesn’t mean political foes can’t remain foes, but it does mean they can and they should, at such times, stand behind their president. It appears the rest of the world is ready to do so.