It is a truth universally acknowledged, at least among American political analysts, that the struggle against violent Islamist extremism is back in play as an organizing principle in international affairs. The Obama administration may have hoped to wind down the “war on terror,” but it is now engaged in open-ended if limited military operations in Syria and Iraq against the so-called Islamic State (IS). This conflict will shape Washington’s relations with regional powers including Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia, although it is still unclear that the U.S. can balance their competing interests.
But this new phase in the fight against Islamist extremism extends well beyond the Middle East. French troops continue to battle al-Qaida affiliates in northern Mali, while the political masters in Paris fret about the strength of Islamist groups in southern Libya. It is conceivable that French aircraft could soon be striking Libyan targets again to reduce this threat. Meanwhile, there is mounting international support for Nigeria’s campaign against Boko Haram, which paints itself as the IS of West Africa, despite concerns that the Nigerian army’s brutal and often ineffectual tactics are fostering an “interminable insurgency.”
As all too often, the United Nations finds itself marooned and confounded by such treacherous political currents. The organization’s peacekeepers and civilian representatives are scattered along the front lines of the battle against Islamist forces from Mali to southern Lebanon. Their political credibility, and that of the U.N. as a whole, could suffer collateral damage in this new phase of conflict with violent Islamists.