Thursday, September 23, 2010

Obama's UN Speech: More Revealing Than Effective

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By Barry Rubin

President Barack Obama’s speech to the UN, September 23, 2010, is revealing on several levels. Indeed, I learned something very important about his foreign policy. But that’s at the end.

He began by discussing terrorism as if it is carried out by faceless, doctrineless, causeless mystery men who have no sponsors, ideology, or goals and attack everyone equally.

Obama explained:

“Nine years ago, the destruction of the World Trade Center [by whom? BR] signaled a threat that respected no boundary of dignity or decency. Two years ago this month, a financial crisis on Wall Street devastated American families on Main Street. These separate challenges have affected people around the globe.”

That could be an important clue: those who attacked the World Trade Center might have been early protesters against the financial crisis.

What has happened since?

“Men, women and children have been murdered by extremists from Casablanca to London; from Jalalabad to Jakarta.”

Note that three of the four places listed are in Muslim-majority countries, disguising the fact that most of these attacks were by Islamists trying to kill Westerners, though many were also aimed at Muslims, too. Obama should want to win over governments in Muslim majority countries but he goes a step further, making Muslims as the victims rather than focusing on building a broad international coalition.

For that purpose, Obama should have listed more places. In fact by making the tally include many countries he would have demonstrated the extent of the problem and, more effectively, the need for cooperation in fighting this battle. It would have been especially smart of him to mention Russia, India, and China. These are important powers whose support Obama needs. He might have remembered the Asian victims like Thailand and the Philippines. A mention of Israel would have been decent.

The problem, then, is NOT that Obama wants to show sympathy for non-radical Muslims and win them over. The problem is that he focuses too single-mindedly on that priority, while failing to draw a sharper distinction between the two sides in Islam's internal struggle for power and legitimacy.

Obama then discusses his withdrawals from Iraq:

“Since I took office, the United States has removed nearly 100,000 troops from Iraq. We have done so responsibly, as Iraqis have transitioned to lead responsibility for the security of their country. We are now focused on building a lasting partnership with the Iraqi people, while keeping our commitment to remove the rest of our troops by the end of next year.”

He plays partisan politics here. True, he withdrew troops but there’s no mention of the surge—something he opposed and his predecessors implemented—that made these withdrawals possible. It isn't just mean-spirited behavior. Obama genuinely has little sense of the continuity of U.S. policy. Nor will his audience fail to remember that Iraq has been without a government for months, during the period of his "partnership" policy.

Next, a curious, clumsy phrasing to transition to a discussion of nuclear weapons:

“As we pursue the world's most dangerous extremists, we are also denying them the world's most dangerous weapons, and pursuing the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” Leaving aside the nuclear issue itself, how has U.S. policy denied al-Qaida nuclear weapons? The proper connection would be to Iran as the world's main sponsor of terrorism.

Instead, he links the denial of nuclear weapons to Iran with the idea that everyone must give them up, though he mentions in passing that “Iran is the only party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty that cannot demonstrate the peaceful intentions of its nuclear program....” But what does this mean? That Iran's nuclear program is developing weapons or that there is concern such weapons might be used? The distinction might not seem important now but some day it could be the pivot on which the Middle East's strategic balance turns against America.

Okay, enough about the rest of the world, now Obama gets to the issue that really animates him, what he appears to believe is the keystone to everything. Two paragraphs about terrorism; two on Iran; ten long paragraphs about Israel-Palestinian issues.

Before going into detail, let me ask a question: Obama wants to win over Muslim majority states. Why should he highlight what might be considered the U.S. weak point in that context? Yes, I understand he wishes to demonstrate how hard the United States is working on this issue. But no matter how much he talks, he has nothing to show for it! All any Arab or Muslim writer or politician need do to shoot down Obama’s arguments is to say: Yes, he keeps blabbing about this but he hasn’t done anything.

A good statesman doesn’t highlight what he cannot do, nor sets himself up as the one to blame when—inevitably—nothing happens. He and his administration simply don’t get this and keep promising, flattering, and sometimes conceding more with no result.

Obama then sets out to prove he is the world’s number-one champion of the Palestinians. Generally, he does try to present a balanced policy generally in line with the historic U.S. stance. He wants “two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security, as part of a comprehensive peace between Israel and all of its neighbors.”

No problem there. But much of the speech is word for word what he’s said when meeting Israeli, Palestinian, or Arab leaders. What’s he trying to achieve at the UN? Last year he promised direct, intensive talks—a new Camp David--within two months. It took him a year to get direct talks that convene every two weeks.

Obama does tilt toward the Palestinians at times, though it never does him—or the Palestinians—any good. Here he calls on Israel to freeze building on settlements. Okay. But he doesn’t balance that by asking the Palestinian side to do anything.

The impotence of Obama is also revealed in a small detail. He calls for countries that support the Palestinians to give them more aid. Yet so far he has failed to get any Arab state to give even as much money as they did when Bush was president:

Certainly, Obama makes a very strong statement supporting Israel’s existence, promising U.S. support for it, and decrying terrorism against Israeli civilians, though with no hint of who might be doing such things.

There is one line, though, I cannot let pass without analysis:

“Make no mistake: the courage of a man like President Abbas--who stands up for his people in front of the world--is far greater than those who fire rockets at innocent women and children.”

What does that courage consist of? Making compromises with Israel? Fighting Hamas? Ending incitement and telling his people that they should accept Israel’s existence? Offering to resettle Palestinian refugees in Palestine or recognizing Israel as a Jewish state in exchange for Israel recognizing Palestine as an Arab state?

No. Merely that after, resisting for almost two years, he is holding direct talks with Israel while threatening to walk out at the first opportunity. By the way, Yasir Arafat negotiated directly with Israel for eight years.

His finish on this topic is to urge action so that when the UN meets in 2011 the problem would have been solved and there will be a new UN member, “An independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel.”

I’ll bet that when the UN convenes in a year nothing would have changed. If Obama knows that’s true why stake his prestige on it, highlight it, and make it seem the world’s most important issue?

There are important clues here to Obama’s world view. President Bill Clinton showed empathy by saying, “I feel your pain.” Obama goes further, basically saying, “You deserve better and it is my job to give it to you.” Thus, Clinton could go on to exercise real leverage and maneuver strategically because by pointing to the “pain” he highlighted others’ weakness and problems, a step more conducive to moving them toward compromise.

In contrast, Obama stresses U.S. responsibility for problems, even as he asks others to help. He finds it hard to remain consistent in asking for mutual compromise. He presents no persuasive reasons why others should do what he wants.

Most important, Obama simply doesn’t seem to conceive of the idea that in international affairs—outside of a few crazed al-Qaida criminals--there are people who want to destroy you due to ambition, hatred, ideology, and even desire to hold onto what they have. (Joke coming next.) And not all of them are Republicans.

Strange, isn’t it? If Obama can believe that his domestic opponents are bitter haters who want to hold onto their guns and religion, why can’t he comprehend that this is true for a long list of countries and radical movements abroad?

It isn't a very strong speech, and it is lacking in any particular American perspective. Obama is really non-American in his approach. At no point is there any assertion of U.S. leadership or any idea that the United States has some particular set of interests apart from other countries. Trying to build bridges with other countries is a necessary task for a president, yet Obama seems to think he can best do so by standing in the middle of the bridge. 

This approach explains his popularity with Western Europe but is not so effective in the Third World where people either view America as an enemy or want it to be strong in order to protect them.

And so here is the revelation that Obama’s UN speech has taught me:

There have been presidents who thought that the outside world is exactly the same as America. There have been presidents who thought that the rest of the world is worse than America. Obama is the first president in history who thinks that the rest of the world is better than America.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at and of his blog, Rubin Reports,

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