CNN speaks with Fareed Zakaria about President Obama’s speech on the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria delivered at the United Nations on Wednesday. This is an edited version of the transcript.
Many were surprised that the Obama administration did in fact put together a coalition including five Sunni Arab countries to not only express support, but military support against ISIS. They got involved in striking these ISIS targets in Syria. That certainly is going to put enormous pressure on the rest of the world and friends of the United States to at least voice support for what the U.S. is trying to achieve.
Frankly, I wouldn't mind seeing the United States leading a little bit from behind on this one, which is to say having the Sunni Arab states in the front confronting ISIS, rather than having what ISIS would regard as the crusader capitalist Western Christian power do it.
The issue here, though, is that the strikes are fine, and I think the president will find there's broad support in a campaign against ISIS. There's broad support for the kind of talk about world order. But what's the regional strategy and follow up?
These addresses before the U.N. General Assembly are usually pretty good speeches, well written, there's a whole laundry list of international issues they want to get through, make some points, but then a few days later, certainly a few weeks later, very few people remember what they said. Will this speech be remembered down the road?
I think it will because of that very distinctive piece of it, the call on the Muslim world to cleanse itself of extremism. Very unusual. Many presidents have thought about talking in those terms, but have always been deterred – I know this was a conversation that took place within the Bush White House – because [they] always felt it would seem too anti-Muslim.
But I think it's also important to point out that this was a great speech, the kind Obama gives well. It's Obama as professor. It's a public education speech. It's coherent. It arches over lots of subjects, talks about world order.
The problem is the policy underneath remains somewhat troubling. We are fighting ISIS, which will have the effect of strengthening the al-Assad regime, strengthening Iran, strengthening Russia, while we are also saying that we are battling the al-Assad regime, Russia, and Iran. That is not simply a problem; that is frankly incoherent. And we haven't figured out how to get around that strategic incoherence at the heart of the policy. That will start unraveling on the ground. The speech was great. President Bush made lots of very strong, determined, fiery speeches. But the problem is the policy on the ground has to keep up.
Take Iraq. He says we have a new government in Iraq. That's not exactly true. We have a new prime minister. The prime minister has not made any major concessions to the Sunnis. The Sunni tribes remain on strike, as it were – there's an excellent piece in The New York Times a couple of days ago that pointed out 198 airstrikes in Iraq have not been very effective because you don't have the ground troops, which would be the Sunni locals whose hearts and minds you have won over. So that's the kind of stuff that will unravel on the ground despite the eloquence and frankly brilliance of the speech.