President Obama's remarks to the United Nations General Assembly singled out "the cancer of violent extremism" in many parts of Muslim world as the principal global threat. But he failed to call out governments that have long contributed to the problem, and his strategy involved very little action by the United States.
The president's policy to combat ISIL and other extremist groups depends on the cooperation of governments like Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. These same governments have led a successful regional pushback against the change that swept the Arab world in the spring of 2011-- demands for human dignity and representative government. The price of these nations' cooperation is that the United States will soften its calls for human rights and democracy when dealing with its authoritarian Sunni Muslim allies.
This shortsighted policy risks being counterproductive. Repression, injustice, and corruption are the products of unresponsive and unaccountable governance. They fuel the grievances on which violent extremist groups feed.
Instead of directly calling on governments to embark on essential human rights reforms, as President Obama had in May 2011, Wednesday he spoke in generalities about the need to "focus on youth," to embark on "a broader negotiation in which major powers address their differences," and he called on Muslim communities to reject the ideology of ISIL and al-Qa'eda. In all of this the president said that America would be a "respectful, constructive partner."
This approach is not convincing. President Obama must show that he is willing to confront his authoritarian allies in the Middle East with unpleasant truths about their role in fostering the problem they now face. The president needs to speak out clearly against the financial support flowing from the wealthy Gulf monarchies to extremist ideologues and movements. He must condemn the practice of turning political protests into sectarian conflicts. And above all, he must make clear that the United States stands against the denial of basic rights and freedoms of speech, assembly, and religion by the governments of its regional allies -- such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates.
The president's speech Wednesday was a step back from a human rights based approach towards the Middle East. His words will not contribute to the long-term peace, stability, and progress of which he spoke, nor will it advance America's interests in the region or around the world.