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Obama Challenges U.N. To Confront World's Conflicts

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

President Obama told a gathering of leaders at the United Nations today the world stands at a crossroads between war and peace. The speech came as U.S. warplanes continued their assault on militants calling themselves the Islamic State. President Obama said the U.S. would not back away from conflicts around the world, but he also said it's up to the international community to tackle the challenges of the 21st century. NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now from New York City where the president finished speaking just about an hour ago. And, Scott, this was a speech where President Obama was in a way kind of throwing down a challenge, right, for his fellow leaders at the U.N.?

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: That's right, Audie. He pointed to an array of problems that the leaders are talking about this week - from the Ebola outbreak in West Africa to Russian aggression in Ukraine - and said all of these are in a way a collective failure of the international community, whether it's a failure to build up public health systems or a failure in the past to punish those who would violate international norms when it was inconvenient to do so. Obama said problems like the Ebola outbreak can seem far away, but unless the international community works together to confront those problems and confront them strongly, the instability will only spread.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: For America, the choice is clear - we chose hope over fear. We see the future not as something out of our control, but as something we can shape for the better through consorted and collective effort.

HORSLEY: The president pointed to the example of U.S. doctors and the military now at work in West Africa. Of course critics have said that the United States and others were very slow to respond to the Ebola threat.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, of course the threat that's on a lot of people's minds this week is the militant group known as ISIS or ISIL.

HORSLEY: That's right. (Unintelligible) One of the immediate threats the president says the U.S. and the world must address. This week, the air campaigns stretched into Syria. And the Obama administration has stressed the participation of Arab allies in that effort. Overall, Obama says the anti-ISIS coalition now numbers more than 40 countries.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: Today, I ask the world to join in this effort. Those who have joined ISIL should leave the battlefield while they can. Those who continue to fight for a hateful cause will find they're increasingly alone, for we will not succumb to threats and we will demonstrate that the future belongs to those who build, not those who destroy.

HORSLEY: The president described ISIS as one example of a hateful ideology, and he says the world has to do more to confront that kind of religious intolerance wherever it shows up.

CORNISH: Now, Scott, later today, the president leads a Security Council meeting. And I understand on the agenda is the problem of ISIS recruitment.

HORSLEY: That's right. The administration estimates there's some 14,000 foreign fighters working with ISIS and other militant groups in Iraq and Syria. They're a big security concern, especially the westerners among them who might export the violence back to the United States or Europe. So the president says countries have to do more to fight the recruitment, fight the radicalization of their own people, make it harder for them to travel to places like Syria. And while the U.N. - the Security Council is expected to adopt a resolution today, the president says next year countries should come back prepared to do even more to confront that kind of problem of hateful ideology and radicalization.

CORNISH: Another meeting people are watching, the president is meeting with the new prime minister of Iraq who came to power with strong backing from the United States. What should we read into this?

HORSLEY: Well, the president held up Haider al-Abadi really as a hopeful sign, as someone who can form a more inclusive government in Iraq. That was something of course the administration pushed hard for as a condition of ramping up U.S. airstrikes. Ultimately, the president says, the world needs to confront the sectarian battle that's being fought between Sunnis and Shias that is at the heart of so much conflict in the Middle East. He says we need to end the proxy wars that are going on and that are really epitomized by the civil warfare in Syria. And so he's holding up the new prime minister of Iraq as really an example of a positive development in that part of the world, something that he wants to see a lot more of.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Scott Horsley. Scott, thank you.

HORSLEY: My pleasure, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.