The president shows once again he does not understand the Middle East.
Between taping an appearance on "The View," fundraisers and campaign events, President Obama managed to act the part of the leader of the free world by stopping by the United Nations on September 25th to deliver a speech in which he advocated the principle of free speech and called on "those who condemn" the "slander" of the prophet of Islam to "also condemn the hate we see when the image of Jesus Christ is desecrated, churches are destroyed, or the Holocaust is denied." Although in certain respects Obama's speech was better than that of U.N. General Secretary Ban Ki-moon, some of his statements were more than eyebrow-raising.
There is nothing like a presidential campaign to focus the incumbent president's mind, particularly when his feckless policies in the Middle East have become a political hot potato for him. That said, it was a pleasant surprise to hear President Obama turn away from his apologetic 2009 speech in Cairo - even if only temporarily.
President Obama's strongest words came during his explanation of the rationale for our constitutional right of free speech:
I know there are some who ask why we don’t just ban such a video. And 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. Like me, the majority of Americans are Christian, and yet we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs. As President of our country and Commander-in-Chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day and I will always defend their right to do so.
Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views, even views that we profoundly disagree with. We do not do so 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 quickly become a tool to silence critics and oppress minorities.
President Obama also, for the first time, drew a clear moral distinction between the video offensive to Muslims and the violence all around the Muslim world that followed. While branding the video "crude and disgusting" - which it was - Obama declared that "the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech." And he emphasized that "There are no words that excuse the killing of innocents."
However, Obama still harped on the video as what "sparked outrage throughout the Muslim world." The Muslim world does not need a spark for the violence that is regularly committed against Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and anyone else deemed offensive to Islamist sensibilities simply because they exist. In any case, why is Obama still focusing on the video when members of his own administration have now conceded that the killings in Libya were the work of terrorists - most likely, al Qaeda?
Moreover, Obama still tried to placate Islamic leaders in the General Assembly hall when he said that "the future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam." This was a grave error because the definition of "slander" to Islamists, who often use that term or its equivalent, includes any criticism of Mohammed and his teachings, which in their minds justifies the international criminalization of "blasphemy." The Islamists no doubt tuned out all of Obama's discussion of free speech and the need for two-way tolerance. Instead, they latched on to Obama's rejection of so-called "slander" of their prophet. What Obama should have said is that the future belongs to those with the courage to tell the truth, which requires critical thinking to reject the Islamist beliefs that are supremacist, misogynist, intolerant, and violence-prone.
Obama was careful in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He avoided any mention of Israeli settlements. He did not repeat his indefensible demand that Israel agree unilaterally to begin negotiations based largely on the pre-1967 armistice lines. He called for "a secure, Jewish state of Israel; and an independent prosperous Palestine." However, he did not call out Hamas and Hezbollah by name as major impediments to peace. Nor did he try to dissuade the Palestinians from moving forward with their plan later this year to seek an upgrade of their status to observer state by vote of the General Assembly. There is little the United States can do to stop such a vote from happening, since we do not have the veto power that we possess in the Security Council where the Palestinians last year sought full UN member state status. However, Obama missed the opportunity to lay out the consequences of a General Assembly vote to approve observer state status for the Palestinians, which would give them the right to join more individual UN agencies as full-fledged members. He should have made it clear that, under U.S. law, there may well be reductions or elimination of U.S. funding for all affected UN agencies.
The balance of President Obama's General Assembly speech contained little that was new. For the upteenth time, he said that the United States will do what is necessary to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. He also again held out the hope for diplomacy to work. He said that "we believe that there is still time and space to do so. But that time is not unlimited."
Sound familiar? Time may not be unlimited, but the mess in Iran has eaten up virtually all of Obama's first term with Iran getting ever closer to its goal of developing a nuclear weapon and the means to deliver it.
He laid down no red lines or deadlines. Instead, we witnessed the same old policy of talking loudly and carrying a small stick.
President Obama also used his UN speech to take another victory lap for the killing of Osama bin Laden. "Al Qaeda has been weakened, and Osama bin Laden is no more," he said.
As the tragic killings in Libya demonstrated, al Qaeda is not weakened globally. It has spread out and is still a lethal force with a global reach to be reckoned with.
Moreover, President Obama continues to operate from the mistaken premise that, if we just get rid of or marginalize the violent extremists, all will be well. The truth is that violent extremism is not distorting Islam. To the contrary, its roots lie in core Islamic beliefs. The Muslim Brotherhood, which spawned al Qaeda and Hamas, has not had an epiphany and become a truly moderating force within the Muslim community. Its tactics focus on infiltrating and taking over existing institutions through stealth jihad, but its end game is the same as its more violent offspring. Obama's speech continued his pattern of drawing false distinctions among elements comprising our common enemy - Islamist jihadists.
All in all, however, this speech was the best that President Obama has delivered at the United Nations. And it was far superior to the speech by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that opened the General Assembly session.
Ban Ki-moon began his speech by declaring his intention "to sound the alarm about our direction as a human family."
If the world leaders listening expected a serious analysis of the most pressing issues threatening global peace and security, they were profoundly disappointed. Instead, Ban Ki-moon delivered a check list of issues phrased in such broad terms as to render the check list a meaningless exercise. His highest priority is to advance "sustainable development goals," whatever that means.
Ban Ki-moon devoted just one sentence to Iran, stating that "Iran must prove the solely peaceful intent of its programme." Iran has ignored such demands for years. Meanwhile, he spent more time condemning Israel for its settlements and the "decades of harsh occupation and humiliating restrictions in almost every aspect of their [Palestinians] lives."
The Secretary General made no specific mention of Ambassador Stevens' murder by Islamist jihadists, which was an assault not just on America but on the entire fabric of international diplomacy for which the United Nations supposedly stands. He focused instead on the infamous video as the root of the recent violence in the Muslim world. "Over the past two weeks a disgraceful act of great insensitivity," Ban Ki-moon said, "has led to justifiable offense and unjustifiable violence."
Ban Ki-moon believes the video represented an abuse of freedom of speech that incited the violence. President Obama to his credit finally rejected that premise, at least for the purposes of his election year speech to the United Nations. Whether Obama will revert to Ban Ki-moon's position if he is re-elected remains to be seen.
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