Tuesday, September 25, 2012

President Obama's Speech to UN

President Obama has just given his speech at the UN General Assembly.

I felt the President made a generally good speech. As an American, when any President speaks to the UN as our representative and leader, I always think it's important to listen with an open mind. That being said, I didn't think the speech was perfect.

First, the POSITIVES.

 I liked the tribute to Chris Stevens - though perhaps unsurprising, it was important to pay tribute to Chris's sacrifice and the tremendous work that the men and women of the Department of State/AID do for America.

With caveats (see negatives below) I liked the way the President articulated the case for free speech. This was an especially strong line-  'True democracy demands that citizens cannot be thrown in jail because of what they believe, and businesses can be opened without paying a bribe. It depends on the freedom of citizens to speak their minds and assemble without fear; on the rule of law and due process that guarantees the rights of all people.'   Words that bear interesting similarities with those of a former President...

I also like that the President specifically articulated the US legal foundation for free speech - 'I know there are some who ask why we don't just ban such a video. The answer is enshrined in our laws: our Constitution protects the right to practice free speech. Here in the United States, countless publications provoke offense.' The President should have made this point a couple of weeks ago.

Again - Enjoyed this quote (a message that reflects my own point of view) - 'We do so not because we support hateful speech, but because our Founders understood that without such protections, the capacity of each individual to express their own views, and practice their own faith, may be threatened. We do so because in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can become a tool to silence critics, or oppress minorities. We do so because given the power of faith in our lives, and the passion that religious differences can inflame, the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech – the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.'

I thought the President was correct to note the fact that most victims of violent Islamist extremism are in fact Muslims - 'Let us remember that Muslims have suffered the most at the hands of extremism. On the same day our civilians were killed in Benghazi, a Turkish police officer was murdered in Istanbul only days before his wedding; more than ten Yemenis were killed in a car bomb in Sana'a; and several Afghan children were mourned by their parents just days after they were killed by a suicide bomber in Kabul.' This is the great hypocrisy of groups like Al Qa'ida and the Taliban, their only root to power is intimidation and murder. 

I liked the President's call for the international community 'to marginalize those who – even when not resorting to violence – use hatred of America, or the West, or Israel as a central principle of politics. For that only gives cover, and sometimes makes excuses, for those who resort to violence.' This use of hatred as a distraction from internal societal/governmental challenges, is a major obstacle to international peace, stability and individual empowerment. 

I thought the President's condemnation of Assad was powerful - 'In Syria, the future must not belong to a dictator who massacres his people. If there is a cause that cries out for protest in the world today, it is a regime that tortures children and shoots rockets at apartment buildings.' With this quote, as well as attacking Assad, Obama was clearly making an implied challenge to Islamic populations to consider the hypocrisy of their relative lack of concern for the moral crisis in Syria.

I liked the President's attack on the Iranian theocrats - 'In Iran, we see where the path of a violent and unaccountable ideology leads. The Iranian people have a remarkable and ancient history, and many Iranians wish to enjoy peace and prosperity alongside their neighbors. But just as it restricts the rights of its own people, the Iranian government props up a dictator in Damascus and supports terrorist groups abroad.' I haven't previously heard this President make such a strong rebuke of the repellent authoritarian ideology that guides Iran's rulers. Drawing international attention to the hypocrisy of Iran (and Hezbollah's) liberation narrative was also deeply important.

Finally, I liked the President's final line - '... so long as we work for it justice will be done; that history is on our side; and that a rising tide of liberty will never be reversed.' Again, note the unmistakable comparisons of this narrative to that of President George W Bush. It is my personal opinion that the Arab Spring has transformed Obama from a realist into a confused realist idealist at least in narrative, in the model of  Bush.

I did not like the President's reference to the 'Innocence of Muslims' as 'a crude and disgusting video' and his statement that 'its message must be rejected by all who respect our common humanity.' I don't disagree that the video is crude and disgusting, but I do disagree with the President when he uses his office to condemn it and to demand its rejection. The US Government should not be making subject based prescriptions on the  lawful speech of US citizens. An affirmation that the US Government had no role in the video's production would have been sufficient. 

On Syria, the President did not (and does not) offer any substantive plans to speed up Assad's fall. His words on this issue were strong. But words will not liberate the Syrian people. Here's what I think we should do.

On Iran, the President's threat to '... do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon' was hesitant and at least to me, simply not convincing. This was a major failing on the part of the President. In order to bring Iran to a serious negotiating position, he must persuade Iran that America will ultimately be willing to use force. He hasn't.

Finally, on Afghanistan. The President's statement that '
America and our allies will end our war on schedule in 2014' was utterly absurd. For me, this was by far the worst moment of the speech. It perfectly illustrated the ad-hoc approach towards Afghanistan that has typified Obama's Presidency. Sadly, the President is ignoring the positive news and is giving up on our Afghanistan mission too early.

Conclusion - A generally good speech. But as I have pointed out above, I have major issues with the practical conception of this President's foreign policy.


  1. Hey Tom, I enjoy reading your blog. We see eye to eye on the positives of the speech, but I'll push back a bit on your speech negatives. It is, in my view, the right and smart thing to do for the president to weigh in on the video before the world body. Because he has been willing to be, rightfully, critical of the video, he has given space to leaders and opinion makers in the muslim world to capture an important moment for this region that I now call home and reframe the discussion of what is Islam? And more importantly, point out what isn't Islam. What's happening in Benghazi, with people standing up to militias and brigades would have taken much longer to happen without the horrible events at the consulate and Obama and Clinton's, especially Clinton's strong statements. Check out Tom Friedman's most recent piece in the NYT.

    As for Afghanistan, there is no feel good exit strategy for coalition forces in Afghanistan. No way to claim a victory there. To see success there as leaving behind institutions of good governance and a national Afghan identity as coalition soldiers throw packs over their backs and stride off into the sunset with waving Afghans seeing them off is out of the hollywood dream factory. Afghanistan has always been too fractious for that. From the point of view of everyone our people (AJE) talk to on all sides of this, 2014 can't come soon enough. What happens after forces leave should give everyone the cold sweats, but that day has to come. It has to.

    1. Interesting insights. Really appreciate your post Tony. Thanks very much.