WASHINGTON » As he sought to rally the world behind a renewed attack on terrorism, President Barack Obama argued on Thursday that force of arms was not enough and called on all nations to "put an end to the cycle of hate" by expanding human rights, religious tolerance and peaceful dialogue.
But the challenge of his approach was staring him right in the face. His audience of invited guests, putative allies in a fresh international counterterrorism campaign, included representatives from some of the world’s least democratic and most repressive countries.
The three-day White House conference on violent extremism that Obama wrapped up on Thursday provided a case study in the fundamental tension that has bedeviled the U.S. struggle with terrorism since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. While Obama has concluded that radicalism is fueled by political and economic grievance, he has found himself tethered to some of the very international actors most responsible for such grievances, dependent on them for intelligence and cooperation on security operations to prevent future attacks.
"There is a very profound conceptual disagreement about whether the best way to counter violent extremism is through human rights and civil society or through an iron fist," said Marc Lynch, director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University. The Obama administration wants "to project the human rights side, but you look at the people they’re working with and fighting alongside, and there’s a lot more to it than that."
Elisa Massimino, president of the advocacy group Human Rights First, attended the meeting on Thursday and was struck by the juxtaposition of rhetoric and reality.
"We’re sitting in that room with representatives of governments that are part of the problem," she said. "If the president believes what he’s saying, then the actions that these governments are taking are undermining our supposedly shared agenda."
"That has to stop," she added, "or we can have summits every month," but "we’re not going to win."
A case in point was Egypt, whose foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, was among those given a featured speaking role on Thursday. Although Egypt’s military has reasserted its primacy and is cracking down on dissent, it has also been one of America’s staunchest collaborators in hunting down terrorists in a dangerous region. Just this week, Egypt launched an airstrike against Islamic State forces in Libya, briefly, at least, taking on an offshoot of the group that the U.S. has been bombing in Iraq and Syria.
Critics say the terrorism fight has simply enabled autocratic regimes to go after their political foes without worrying about U.S. disapproval. Egypt’s leaders, for instance, have moved to stifle the Muslim Brotherhood, the opposition group they deem too radical.
"It is futile to distinguish between bad terrorists, which must be defeated, and good terrorists, which can be accommodated," Shoukry said.
Marwan Muasher, the former foreign minister of Jordan who is now a vice president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said he worried that the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, was becoming a rallying point for the disaffected.
"People who are not happy with the establishment sometimes find in ISIS a counterforce for reasons that might be associated with ideology or might not," he told a breakfast meeting separate from the White House event. "There is a huge credibility gap" between Arab governments and their people, he added. "Nothing governments are saying is taken or believed by the public in general, and so that needs to change."
The White House acknowledged the disconnect between advocating human rights and teaming up with human rights violators. But aides said it was one Obama had learned to live with, given the importance of maintaining an international coalition to fight the Islamic State and other terror threats.
"It’s a perennial challenge of the U.S. government that some of our partners are much more aggressive than others in how they define their domestic terrorist challenge," said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to Obama. That dynamic is "most obvious in Egypt, where essentially there’s been a very broad brush in terms of who represents a terrorist threat."
He said the Obama administration would continue to press allies to balance the fight against terrorists with tolerance of political opponents. "All we can do there is be straightforward," Rhodes said. "You don’t want to feed a sense of grievance that goes beyond the groups that are necessary to target."
Egypt was not the only country represented at the conference with a spotty record on human rights or democracy. Other nations who sent ministers and officials included Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Uganda and the United Arab Emirates. The prosecutor general of Kazakhstan, still ruled by the former Communist who was in charge when it broke away from the Soviet Union, gave a short speech. Nearby was Alexander V. Bortnikov, director of the Federal Security Service, which, as the Russian successor to the KGB, has been a partner with the U.S. on fighting terrorism even as it cracks down on critics of the Kremlin at home.
In promoting democracy and freedom as part of the solution to terrorism, Obama is returning to a theme he has advanced episodically in the past, and one that his predecessor, President George W. Bush, made the centerpiece of his second inaugural address in 2005. Obama, like Bush, argued that oppression, corruption and injustice created openings for extremists to exploit disgruntled young people.
"When people spew hatred toward others because of their faith or because they’re immigrants, it feeds into terrorist narratives," Obama said. "It feeds a cycle of fear and resentment and a sense of injustice upon which extremists prey. And we can’t allow cycles of suspicion to tear the fabrics of our countries."
Yet, as he embraced a message similar to his predecessor’s, Obama offered less emphasis on force than Bush was known for. Obama condemned recent terrorist attacks but did not present terrorism as an existential threat like Bush did, nor did he use some of the phrases Bush used to refer to Islamic radicalism.
Republican critics said the conference missed the point, dismissing it as a feel-good exercise when the president should instead be stepping up his military campaign against the Islamic State.
"As vicious as the Islamic State has been towards Jews and Christians — killing them, cutting off their heads, burning them alive — they are just as vicious to most Muslims in Iraq and Syria who are struggling under their yoke right now," Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said on CNN. "The reason they are doing it is because they have more arms and weapons and more soldiers, and no one is standing up to them. That’s what this president needs to do."
Peter Baker and Julie Hirschfeld Davis, New York Times