President Obama told the United Nations Wednesday that "America will not base our entire foreign policy on reacting to terrorism," even as he works to dismantle a "network of death" established by Islamic extremists in the Middle East.
"We have waged a focused campaign against al Qaeda and its associated forces - taking out their leaders, and denying them the safe-havens they rely upon. At the same time, we have reaffirmed that the United States is not and never will be at war with Islam. Islam teaches peace," Mr. Obama said. "So we reject any suggestion of a clash of civilizations. Belief in permanent religious war is the misguided refuge of extremists who cannot build or create anything, and therefore peddle only fanaticism and hate."
Mr. Obama's speech to the U.N. comes amid a host of international crises he has had to contend with in recent months. Chief among them is the spread of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (also known as ISIS, or ISIL), which now controls vast swaths of territory in the two countries and is a threat, in part,because of the foreign fighters it has successfully attracted from Europe and the United States.
In addition to the nearly 40 countries that have already joined the coalition against ISIS, Mr. Obama invited other countries to join in the effort. He also reiterated a pledge that he does not intend to "send U.S. troops to occupy foreign lands."
Mr. Obama announced Tuesday that the U.S. and five Arab partner nations had carried out their first airstrikes against ISIS in Syria Monday evening. Separately, the U.S. also struck the Khorasan group, an al Qaeda affiliate operating in Syria that U.S. officials said was nearing the execution stage of an attack on the U.S.
The heart of the president's speech focused on broad ways that the world - and, in particular, Arab and Muslim nations - must combat the rise of extremism in the long run, warning that a cycle of conflict derails chance for progress in the coming century.
"It is time for a new compact among the civilized peoples of this world to eradicate war at its most fundamental source: the corruption of young minds by violent ideology," he said. "That means cutting off the funding that fuels this hate. It's time to end the hypocrisy of those who accumulate wealth through the global economy, and then siphon funds to those who teach children to tear it down."
By next year, the president said, all nations should be prepared to announce "concrete steps" they have taken to counter extremist ideologies.
Part of curbing the rise of terrorism includes addressing the cycles of sectarian conflict, such as the Sunni-Shia divide in Iraq, which terrorists exploit to gain power. That, Mr. Obama said, is the "source of so much human misery" in the Middle East, as he cited the death toll of over 200,000 in Syria from the civil war.
Touching on societal changes he sees as critical in the Middle East, Mr. Obama talked about the need to build inclusive societies where women can participate in politics, education and the business world and young people see a viable future for themselves.
"If young people live in places where the only option is between the dictates of a state, or the lure of an extremist underground - no counter-terrorism strategy can succeed. But where a genuine civil society is allowed to flourish - where people can express their views, and organize peacefully for a better life - then you dramatically expand the alternatives to terror," the president said.
Though he said these changes must come from within the Middle East, Mr. Obama pledged that the U.S. will be a "respectful and constructive partner."
After outlining a list of changes he hopes to see abroad, the president acknowledged that the U.S. still faces its own problems. He cited the protests in Ferguson, Missouri that occurred after a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager.
"Yes, we have our own racial and ethnic tensions. And like every country, we continually wrestle with how to reconcile the vast changes wrought by globalization and greater diversity with the traditions that we hold dear. But we welcome the scrutiny of the world - because what you see in America is a country that has steadily worked to address our problems and make our union more perfect," he said.
Islamic extremism is not the only threat Mr. Obama addressed. In West Africa, the Ebola crisisrages on. The World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that without timely, significant efforts to curb the crisis, the disease could infect up to 1.4 million people in Sierra Leone and Liberia by mid-January. Last week, Mr. Obama announced that he is sending up to 3,000 U.S. military personnel to West Africa to help combat and contain the spread of the virus, calling it a, "potential threat to global security."
He will deliver remarks at a U.N. meeting about the epidemic later Wednesday.
The Russian incursion into Ukraine also continues to worry the U.S. as months of sanctions on Russia have seemingly failed to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin to pull back his troops and encourage pro-Russian rebels to put down their arms.
"This is a vision of the world in which might makes right - a world in which one nation's borders can be redrawn by another, and civilized people are not allowed to recover the remains of their loved ones because of the truth that might be revealed," he said in a reference Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which was shot down over Ukraine. "These are simple truths, but they must be defended. America and our allies will support the people of Ukraine as they develop their democracy and economy."
After addressing the General Assembly, Mr. Obama will lead a meeting of the Security Council, marking only the second time in history that a U.S. president will chair the meeting. He will also hold a number of bilateral meetings on the sidelines with leaders like Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and Egyptian President Abdelfattah Al Sisi.