Press Releases: Remarks at 3rd Annual Transformational Trends Policy Forum
Thank you. David, thank you very much. Thank you all. Good morning to you. I’m delighted to have a chance to be able to be here and appreciate the breadth of what you all are going to be tackling over the course of the day, so I particularly am grateful. David, thank you for – everyone – rearranging schedules so that we could flip this around today, literally leaving straight from here to go to the airport to head over to meetings tomorrow in London, some of which have to do with Iran and others don’t. And then we are obviously entering in a key period with the negotiations regarding Iran’s nuclear program, and I will go to Vienna at the appropriate moment.
But I particularly want to thank David Rothkopf and Foreign Policy magazine for hosting what has become now an annual tradition in partnership with the State Department. And it’s a conference that focuses not just on the immediate, but on the trends that are either transforming now or may have the potential for transforming the world as we go forward. And I think it’s safe to say that the last several years have reminded all of us that there is no such thing as a trouble-free zone on any world map. No country is immune from the impact of troubles in some other country. So make no mistake: Every part of the globe merits our attention, and I’m not exaggerating.
I will assume chairmanship of the Arctic Council next April and we’re already planning a two-year stint of the priorities for the Arctic, and that includes, I might add, priorities that extend to the Antarctic. There is no place that doesn’t demand focus today, and it’s not as a favor to another country that we do this. It’s a necessity for our country, and that’s why America’s foreign policy is so broadly focused. In fact, I would share with you that the enterprise of American foreign policy and the State Department, in particular, is a little bit like an iceberg in the sense that if you’re looking at it on the horizon, you may only see the top third or so above the water, but beneath the surface our foreign policy apparatus is more engaged and more connected in more places on more issues than at any other time in our history, and that is documentable.
Every single day we are pursuing policies that advance a security agenda, an economic agenda, an environmental agenda, a human rights agenda, and a development agenda. And every single day we are making decisions that have an impact on every continent. And I might add it is our privilege as America to be able to have that impact, and to have so many countries look to us for it.
But today I want to focus on the region that I know a lot of Americans wish was out of the headlines – the Middle East and North Africa. As most of you know, I was a United States senator for almost 29 years, and yes, senators know how to talk interminably, but if you’re elected and reelected to the United States Senate five times, I would respectfully assert to you, hopefully it means you have also learned how to listen.
And if I were still in the Senate and I’d gone home for a town hall meeting this past weekend, I’m pretty sure I know what I would’ve heard. “Senator Kerry, if people in the Middle East are always going to fight each other and they want to kill each other, why do we need to get involved? Senator, there are people in New Bedford who are hurting, and how about helping them instead of trying to help the people in Baghdad or Aleppo? Senator, the last time we got involved in the conflict in the Middle East, we spent eight years and trillions of dollars in Iraq. Tell me why this will ever be different, or why does the Middle East matter? Why is it our problem?”
These are all terrific questions; all legitimate. But every question deserves an honest answer, and frankly, even if the truth isn’t easy, Americans deserve nothing less. We all remember that great moment in “A Few Good Men” when Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Jessup besieged by tough questions snaps, “You can’t handle the truth.” Well it might be heresy in today’s Washington of simple storylines and hyperbolic headlines, but I think the American people do want the truth. I think they demand it and I think they deserve it.
So when it comes to the Middle East, this is my view of reality, a truth, if you want. We have to be deeply engaged – deeply engaged – in this region because it is directly in the interest of our national security and our economy and it is also in keeping with who we are. Pearl Harbor was the rudest of Awakenings to isolationists at home who, no matter how much some wished it, could not wall off America from the world’s struggles. And 9/11 was a reminder that even a small group could hatch an evil plot thousands of miles from our shores that dramatically changed life for the world’s only superpower. We dare not forget these lessons, not in a world where no distance, no ocean, no fence, no firewall, can truly shield us from danger.
Now technology has also changed things. Technology lets us live faster and longer, travel and communicate more widely, and compress a library of information into a single tiny chip. But when it comes to threats, it has also made the world a lot smaller. In the 21st century, next door is everywhere. There can be no limit to our vigilance either in territory or time. And that is a primary reason why the Middle East matters.
But it also matters because our friends are so important to us. We are proudly and unapologetically connected to Israel and many Arab states with whom we have worked closely for decades. These relationships actually make us safer by enabling us to respond earlier and more capably to such security risks as terrorism, aggression, proliferation, and organized crime. By helping our friends to become stronger, we actually become stronger ourselves. And of course, turbulence in the Middle East is also a real threat to our own prosperity.
I know what some people say. “Well, we’re on the verge of kind of moving towards energy independence, so we can walk away from the Middle East.” Believe me: None of us miss the days of gas lines and price shocks because of instability in the Middle East. And yes, in recent years, we’ve made major strides in diversifying our energy sources. Yes, we now are less reliant on Middle East petroleum. But as we long ago discovered, the energy market is global. And any serious disruption to the Gulf oil supplies can have major consequences for our own well-being, as well as the global economy to which we are all attached today.
And even more than that, our exports drive our economy, create jobs and help our manufacturers, farmers, and service providers to compete and to grow. All of this is jeopardized when the building blocks of international security are shaken. And nowhere are those foundations at graver risk today than in the Middle East.
An example is, obviously, a country like Egypt, where it has been the intellectual and foundational cohesive glue, if you will, of the region in many ways for decades. One quarter of the world’s Arab population – fragile and obviously great challenges – if that were to suddenly be in jeopardy because of what is happening, the entire region would be in total turmoil and potentially even sectarian violence unfathomable today.
Another reason the Middle East matters is less tangible but equally profound. The roots of modern civilization can be traced in part to the men and women who centuries ago walked the narrow streets of Damascus and Alexandria, knelt at the holy places of Jerusalem and Mecca, and harvested crops from the fertile plains of the Nile and the Tigris-Euphrates valleys. From such distant ancestors we have inherited rich spiritual and ethical traditions that evolved over time into the values and ideals that guide us today. Our own nation is diverse in ethnicity, race, background, and creed, but united by a belief in the importance of every human being.
That conviction has been under vicious assault in the Middle East, and as a result millions of innocent people are living lives turned upside down. Sure, we could turn away, pretend that we don’t see or hear what is happening. But America would not be America if we turned our back on that suffering. It is not who we are, it is not in our DNA, and it is not in our interest.
Now, I’m not talking about being the world’s policeman, no. And I don’t think our job is to fix every problem. But in the time I’ve lived, I have seen a lot more people wish that they had done more to ease human suffering when they had the chance than have thought later on, well, wait a minute, we were too generous, or wait, the Marshall Plan did too much for Europe, or maybe, well, we shouldn’t have bothered trying to save those lives in Bosnia or Kosovo. Does anybody really believe those things today? Engagement is the right thing to do. It is also the smart thing to do, because the billions of dollars that we and others now devote to emergency response and recovery could be invested instead in creating new opportunities for growth both domestically and overseas. That’s the difference between running in place and working to build a better world.
Now let me be clear about something: The United States is not party to the sectarian and inter-ethnic rivalries that divide much of the Middle East, nor do we have to be. We do not covet any country’s land or resources. We believe the region’s people, not outsiders, should determine how and by whom they are governed. And we think the rights of all, including minorities, should be upheld. We respect everyone’s desire to worship in accordance with the dictates of conscience. And after our experience over the last decade, we are fully aware of the hazards associated with external military action.
In short, the United States does not go in search of enemies in the Middle East. There are times, however, and this is one, when enemies come in search of us. And you know exactly what I’m talking about. The group calling itself the Islamic State is, in fact, neither a state nor truly Islamic. It is an adversary without a uniform, without any support by any government, and offering nothing, nothing in terms of coherent social or a political program. But it is a foe we take very seriously, in part because the dysfunction of some governments in the region has enabled these killers to seize control of more land and more resources than al-Qaida ever had on the best day of its existence.
It has stolen vast quantities of weapons and money. It is attempting to recruit the fanatical and misguided in dozens of countries. And it has gained sway over a considerable portion of Iraq’s midsection, including Mosul, the second-largest city. In the process, it has become a threat to America’s core interests. The terrorists pose an unacceptable danger to American personnel and facilities in Iraq and elsewhere, and their aggression adds to the terrible burdens placed upon our friends and allies in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon. And unless checked, this network could become a rallying point for the alienated and disaffected on every continent, spawning and imitators and spurring individuals in far-flung places to commit stupid, destructive, suicidal acts.
As the Islamic State or ISIL has shown by its actions, its desire is to impose its will over as many people and as much territory as it can. But unlike some extremist groups, it is relatively well organized, disciplined even. Its actions are systemic and planned. And ISIL doesn’t hide its crimes. ISIL is defined by its crimes because the terrorists have nothing positive to offer anyone. Their strategy is based entirely on fear, and many of their captives are executed, some beheaded, some buried alive, some crucified. Others are given a choice to pledge allegiance or die. Children are tortured, killed, or forced to take up arms. Cultural and religious shrines have been desecrated, including the graves of prophets honored by all the children of Abraham. Aid workers and journalists such as David Haines and Alan Henning, James Foley, Steven Sotloff, and now in a crime that we have condemned in the strongest possible terms, Abdul Rahman Peter Kassig – they have all been among those brutally murdered. And as those who have escaped have dramatically testified, women and girls are sold into slavery, threatened, raped, and treated like chattel.
ISIL’s leaders assumed that the world would be too intimidated to oppose them. Well, let us be clear: We are not intimidated; you are not intimidated; our friends and partners are not intimidated; ISIL is very, very wrong.
On September 10th, President Obama outlined America’s plan to mobilize broad coalition to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL. Two months later we are implementing Operation Inherent Resolve through multiple lines of effort, first by providing support to our military partners in the region; second, by applying pressure to the sources of terrorist financing; third, by striving to reduce the flow of foreign fighters; fourth, by exposing the absurdity of ISIL’s religious claims; and fifth, by furnishing humanitarian aid to those hurt or made homeless by the terrorist attacks.
This strategy, which has both short and long-term elements, is starting to gain traction. On the diplomatic side we’ve reached out across the globe to Europe, Asia, to all parts of the Middle East to solicit solidarity and help. We’ve assembled a broad team in our own government, from Defense Secretary Hagel and the experts in the Treasury Department, to General John Allen, our special envoy to the coalition and a man who has served in the region and knows it well.
And ironically, we have found that our best recruiting tool is ISIL itself. ISIL is a coalition multiplier. And governments that can’t agree on almost anything else agree on the imperative of confronting and defeating these terrorists. This is true of Sunni and Shia leaders, Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, members of smaller minority groups. Where once there was suspicion and discord, we now see the Saudi foreign minister link arms with Iraq’s Kurdish and Shia leaders. We see the Government of Turkey agree to allow Kurdish fighters to cross its border and take on ISIL. We see the multi-confessional leadership of Lebanon jointly resisting armed incursions into their territory. In just a few weeks, the coalition has attracted more than five dozen contributors while many others have expressed horror at the terrorists’ tactics and goals.
The breadth of this backing illustrates the galvanizing nature of the ISIL threat. It gives us the diversity and the credibility to move on all fronts, and it will provide Iraq’s Sunni tribes with the confidence that they need to ultimately reclaim their lands.
One of ISIL’s problems, after all, is that familiarity breeds contempt. As one Sunni leader in Iraq said recently, ISIL has humiliated the top sheikhs of Diyala and has done horrible and unforgivable crimes against people here. Last month, that tribe joined with Iraqi national forces in driving the terrorists out of 13 villages in its home province. As far back as January, we had begun increasing our reconnaissance flights and ramping up aid to the Iraqi Security Forces, shipping Hellfire missiles and other weapons that would’ve enabled the government, with stronger leadership, to prevent its territory from falling into the hands of terrorists.
This summer, after Mosul fell, President Obama sent a team of U.S. military advisors to assess the situation. But he also made clear to Iraqi leaders that they had to end the political gridlock that had alienated members of Iraq’s Sunni majority – minority. And they had to put in place a leadership team – this was a requirement for our engagement – that would inspire widespread loyalty. They had to assemble security forces that would fight for more than clan, more than tribe, more than creed – fight for all of Iraq. And they had, in short, to create an alternative to ISIL that Iraqis from every faction could get behind.
To allow time for that, the coalition moved to halt ISIL’s attempt to slaughter the Yezidi religious minority, and we did so. In coordination with Iraqi forces, we established control of the strategic Haditha Dam and rescued the besieged population of Amirli. And more recently, coalition airstrikes have aided fighters in Anbar and Kurdish defenders across the border in Kobani. Participating aircraft have come from America, Australia, several European countries – and in Syria, also from the Gulf states, unprecedented.
We are receiving vital help from NATO and have gained the support of foreign ministries and parliaments from one end of the Earth to the other, including the Asia Pacific, from which the President and I have just returned. Together, we are implementing a plan with our Iraqi partners to strengthen their security forces and stand up a new national guard. The guard is a breakthrough idea, because it will ensure that Iraqis are protected by people with whom they are familiar and in whom they have trust. It’ll break down some of the sectarian divide. And the new units will operate at the provincial level, but will be answerable to the ministry of defense in Baghdad.
Overall, our campaign has begun to have significant impact. The momentum that ISIL built up during the summer has dissipated. It continues, yes, to commit terrible crimes. But it has also been forced to relinquish bases, abandon training sites, alter its mode of communications, disperse personnel, and stop the use of large convoys. Meanwhile, Iraq’s national army is preparing to launch a counteroffensive and will do so when the time is right. And that is not a matter of years; it is a matter of months.
The process of internal political reform in Iraq is also going forward. For the first time, a truly national cabinet is in place. The new prime minister, president, speaker of the council of representatives have all expressed their determination to avoid the paralyzing sectarian rivalries that smooth the way for ISIL’s gains. But as these strong leaders recognize, yes, substantial obstacles remain. Iraqi officials know that they must move quickly to reform discriminatory laws and build greater trust among Sunni tribes. They must bolster their governing institutions and make the country’s armed forces more diverse, more professional. Our international coalition can be counted on to help with equipment, with training. But the political will to fight, to defend, and to liberate must come from within. From Erbil in the north to Basra in the south to Fallujah in the west, Iraqis must take the lead in rescuing their country from those who are trying to steal it.
Containing and gradually reducing the threat that ISIL poses is job number one for our Iraqi partners and for the coalition, increasingly led by the Arab community itself. But even if the government in Baghdad fulfills its responsibilities, it will still face a dire challenge because of events in Syria where ISIL has also established a destructive presence. The coalition’s decision to carry out airstrikes in Syria came in response to a direct request from Iraq for help in defending against ISIL’s aggression – a job that will be far harder if the terrorists can just duck across the border for reinforcements, money, and supplies. Removing that option, which is what we have begun to do, will take time, but controlling the border is an essential element of the coalition’s military strategy. No matter how long it takes, we will succeed in doing that as the Iraqi army stands up and presents itself to do so.
Now, I am aware that some believe that airstrikes against ISIL in Syria will have the perverse effect of actually assisting the country’s longtime dictator, Bashar al-Assad, whose ruthless repression has really generated the gravest humanitarian catastrophe certainly of this century. But that assumption is actually based on a misreading of the political reality in Syria. In fact, the Assad regime and ISIL are actually dependent on one another. That’s why Assad has relentlessly bombed areas held by the moderate opposition while doing almost nothing to hinder ISIL’s march.
This is a point worth emphasizing. Assad and ISIL are symbiotic. ISIL presents itself as the only alternative to Assad. Assad purports to be the last line of defense against ISIL. Both are stronger as a result. If this kind of opportunism sounds familiar, it is. History holds many examples, including in Central America three decades when rightwing militaries and leftwing guerillas each exploited the extremism of the other. And the cycle was broken only when the United States joined with regional allies and political moderates to build up the center.
There are vast differences between Latin America then and the Middle East now. I understand that. But the political equation of extremes against the middle is undeniably present in Syria. For too long, Syrians have felt that their only choice is actually no choice at all. With terrorists on one side and a vicious dictator on the other, our strategy, in coordination with our partners, is to offer the possibility of a new and more constructive choice – a reveille, if you will, for the moderates that excludes both the terrorists and Assad, an option that will be welcomed by every Syrian who wants to live in a country marked by civility and inclusiveness, good governance, and peace. And we believe that is what most Syrians are searching for, a way out of the chaos and out of the bloodshed.
That is why going forward the coalition intends to work with all Syrians who will work with us to empower the center. And progress is possible, we believe, if we are patient and combine coercive measures with creative diplomacy, and if we demonstrate the kind of international cooperation shown by our effort to destroy Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons. Russia and the United States worked very closely to do that, and now, for the first time in history during a conflict, all the chemical weapons that were subject to the convention have been removed and destroyed. It doesn’t get enough focus, but think what would happen today if ISIL had access to those weapons had that not happened.
We believe there’s an opportunity for cooperation, and we are – even as we have difficulties in Ukraine, we talk with the Russians about this. We talk with the Saudis and others, and we will continue to believe there is no military solution to the conflict in Syria. The most desirable outcome remains a negotiated political transition to a new and broadly representative government, and that would be the best way to marginalize foreign fighters, enable the return of refugees, and begin a process of reconciliation and recovery. This can only be a gradual process, but ISIL’s emergence gives us a fresh cause to move in the right direction. The opportunity is there. We must seize it, and to that end, the United States calls on every country that has the ability to be able to make constructive contribution to that endeavor.
Now, I want to emphasize this coalition is not just a military campaign. It is a multinational effort, increasingly, as I said, marshaled by the Arab community, to promote stability and peace throughout the region for the benefit of everyone in the region. And although the center of our activities is Iraq – and Syria, to some degree – ISIL’s influence is by no means confined to one part of the world. Its recruits, tragically – surprisingly to some – can come from any country. They can be male or female, of any ethnicity, and with or without spiritual convictions. Last year, two young men left Great Britain to join ISIL. Among the books that they ordered before departing was “Islam for Dummies” and “The Qu’ran for Dummies.” So let’s be honest: Those recruiting for ISIL aren’t looking for people who are devout and knowledgeable about the tenets of Islam. They’re looking for people who are gullible enough to believe that terrorists enjoy a glamorous lifestyle and pliable enough to do whatever they are told. The Arab ringleaders of ISIL may be evil, but they’re not stupid. That’s why the vast majority of suicide bombers and front line fighters are foreign recruits – and notice none of the leaders go seek paradise for themselves. The foreigners are also ordered to perpetrate many of the worst crimes, because they lack any ethnic or linguistic ties to they – those that they’re called on to kill.
To extend its influence, the leaders of ISIL have called on followers to, “explode volcanoes of jihad,” and they’ve asked them to do that in every country. Last month I visited Canada, where two terrorist attacks occurred a few days apart, one of which was directed at the nation’s parliament. Last week a terrorist group in Egypt proclaimed fealty to ISIL. ISIL insists that its acts of murder, torture, slavery, rape, and desecration are in response to the commands of God – a claim that is, to use an old Boston expression, garbage. Much depends on the ability of respected figures from every branch of Islam to help potential recruits understand that ISIL is against everything that faith teaches and in favor of everything that it abhors.
In September at the UN Security Council, President Obama chaired a high-level meeting on the challenge posed by foreign fighters. That gathering, coupled with the launch of the coalition, has sparked a sharp spike in the information that is being shared all across the world now – a broad array of initiatives designed to make it harder for people to join ISIL and less likely that ex-militants will escape detection when they’re trying to return home. Last February, for example, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah issued a decree banning Saudi citizens from joining or publicly supporting extreme religious and ideological groups. Indonesia has banned ISIL, revoked the passports of militants, and detained suspect travelers. In October, the United Kingdom arrested four ISIL sympathizers who had returned from Syria with plans to behead innocent people in the streets of London. The United States and other countries from Norway to New Zealand have warned citizens against travel to the war zone, and we are – they are – all prepared to take legal action against those joining or aiding ISIL.
In implementing these policies, we should allow young people who in the past signed up without knowing its true nature and who are genuine in their effort to seek rehabilitation to do so. But those who continue to join and fight today have no excuse. ISIL’s identity as a band of murderous thugs should be plain to everyone, and those who willingly claim that identity for themselves bear the full onus for their actions.
So we have to curb the flow of recruits to ISIL, but we must also halt the flow of money. ISIL gets millions of dollars, literally, a month from extortion, looting, selling stolen oil bought by smugglers who operate outside of the conventional banking system. However, at some point, the oil does have to enter the legal economy. And by working backwards, we’ve been able to map where most of it comes from and to develop ideas about how to stop it. And we will also continue to bomb and destroy ISIL’s oil infrastructure.
Meanwhile, ISIL may find that extortion and theft are dwindling sources of revenue. Overrunning and looting a town can indeed be profitable, but when the plunder is spent, all that remains is another village to feed, one more position to defend. In the provinces where ISIL now operates, the Iraqi Government had expected to spend more than two billion in administrative costs and services. Raising even a fraction of that amount to pretend to deliver the government they have promised to people is not possible. And when you combine it with other financial demands, it will place a growing strain on terrorist resources. We’ve already seen a 75 percent cut in pay for ISIL fighters in Mosul. That’s why we keep saying this is a longer-term, patient strategy that we believe in. And as for kidnapping, the United States has set a heart-rending but absolutely necessary example by refusing to pay ransom for captured Americans. Last year the UN Security Council and the G8 firmly endorsed an identical policy, and all of the evidence shows that where and if a country has paid a ransom, there are many more people who are taken hostage.
Further, we have applied sanctions against more than two dozen individuals associated with ISIL or its predecessor group, and the bottom line is clear: ISIL cannot live on hate alone. Acting together, we can gradually deprive it of the financial oxygen that it needs to purchase loyalty. And when that happens, ISIL will not only be morally and intellectually bankrupt, but just plain bankrupt as well.
Finally, our coalition will wage a nonstop campaign in the battle of ideas. Following up on the recent Coalition Communications Conference in Kuwait, governments in and outside the region are implementing plans to rebut terrorist propaganda in both conventional and social media. And while ISIL piles murder upon murder, we are doing all we can to feed the starving, to shelter the homeless, and to heal the wounded. And this is a commitment that we take seriously and that we will honor both during and after Iraq’s efforts to drive ISIL out.
The victims of ISIL already are in desperate straits. There are enormous numbers of people, as you know, displaced in Syria, about 10 million; 6 million within the country – 6 or 7 million within the country; million and a half in Lebanon; million and a half in Jordan or more, a similar number in Turkey. And the coalition is going to need to respond to that need. In the end, it really underscores the inescapable truth: This conflict is not between one civilization and another. Don’t let anybody tell you that. This conflict is between civilization itself and barbarism.
And now we’re all aware that the Obama Administration has been faulted for not having the perfect answer to every question related to the coalition’s campaign – fair enough – but as a student of history, I cannot recall the United States entering into any major confrontation with advanced knowledge of all the possibilities. Certainly, we understand that the politics of the Middle East are tangled by ethnic and sectarian rivalries, that the ground force components of our coalition remain a work in progress, that ISIL will be very hard to dislodge from some areas, and that the coalition’s diversity demands careful management. The coalition has assembled governments that are not fully accustomed to even working together. This makes, yes, for some challenging conversations here and there. But the broad willingness to cooperate is enabling us to make progress, and ultimately we will be far stronger because of the wide range of perspectives that we represent and are bringing to the table.
Now, I readily acknowledge that there are a variety of hard questions facing the coalition, but we’re developing convincing responses to each, and we are determined to succeed because the stakes are so high. And to those who differ, we have a question of our own: Why would it have been better to stand aside and give ISIL a green light to continue its campaign of rape, slaughter, murder, and bigotry across the heart of the Middle East, and what would the consequences of that be? We are confronting ISIL not because it’s easy, but because it’s necessary. In that endeavor, we welcome all questions, but we also want to hear alternatives.
Every critic should be prepared to step forward with an answer to another question: What would they do?
And I also want to think together about another question. The participants in this conference are focused on long-term transformation and future trends, and well we should be. But as we do, let us remember the hard reality of the Middle East: If we don’t defeat ISIL, there will be no viable or acceptable future for the Middle East. And if we don’t build a strong future for the Middle East, it won’t really matter what happens to ISIL. Because over time, we will only win the fight against violent extremism in the Middle East if we have a clear vision of what the future of that region should look like. There must be visible and appealing alternatives to the nihilism that flows from the likes of ISIL, al-Qaida, al-Nusrah, and Khorasan, and those alternatives do exist today. But the stronger and more successful that we can make them, the more we can actually engage in the effort to implement them, the better off we’re all going to be.
Too many countries in the MENA region are held back by inefficient and inequitable economic policies, unresponsive political institutions, inadequate investments in education, and a lack of fairness towards women. Fixing that is a long-term proposition, but long-term commitments are precisely what we need right now. We cannot allow frustration in those countries to grow faster than opportunity. The most dangerous terrorist networks are those that act in the moment, but plan with future generations in mind. We have to do the same. I’ve heard this directly from foreign ministers of various countries in the region, how these groups plot and plan and grab kids when they’re young and capture their minds and pay them a little money in the absence of anybody else doing anything for them, and then they become the recruits and then off they go.
We have to have an alternative. One hundred and seventy years ago, Thoreau wrote that “For every thousand hacking at the leaves of evil, there is one striking at the root.” If today’s children are to prosper and raise their own families in a climate that is free from fear, we have to strike – all of us – at the root. And that task is by no means simple, but believe me, it is within our power.
So even as we mobilize forces to defeat ISIL, we must also encourage measures to reform governance and create opportunity throughout the MENA region. That will not happen by trying to persuade the local population to turn away from its rich spiritual and cultural traditions. Change must develop from inside. But by reaching out where we can, investing in what we can, the United States can help to furnish the leverage that builders within the region seek.
In that endeavor, President Obama has asked each of us never to feel constrained by the limits of what we think we can do. He wants us to define and act on what needs to be done. And we know that there are many, many people in the Middle East, in and outside of government, who, notwithstanding current problems, are building platforms for development, diversity, democratic institutions, and peace, and they are doing it right now and they do it often at great risk.
Accordingly, we believe that the region will emerge, ultimately, from its current struggles with a deeper understanding of its own interest in settling disputes and in preventing differences in ideology and creed from degenerating into the kind of conflict that we see today.
We believe that nations that have been torn apart can heal their wounds, as our own country did long ago, and as Iraq has begun to do today. We believe that the destructive summons to terror will ultimately be rejected because it is at odds with the values of the vast majority of the region’s people and at odds with the dominant religion – Islam – of that region.
And finally, we have faith in the future of the Middle East because we trust in the resilience of the human spirit which, along with the love of justice and freedom, has sustained our own land since before there was an America. And so together with our friends, together with our partners, in contrast to the terrorists and nihilists who aim to destroy, we remain builders resolved to create for future generations a better world. And it is our determination to succeed that causes terrorists to fear us far more than we will ever fear them. Thank you. (Applause.)
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