President Barack Obama delivered his annual address to the United Nations General Assembly on September 24, 2013, the opening day of the UN’s general debate session with many heads of state and other government leaders present for the occasion. He tried to articulate a middle ground for the United States between continued engagement in long, expensive nation-building exercises, which he rejected, and disengagement from the world, which he also rejected. He said that “the United States has a hard-earned humility when it comes to our ability to determine events inside other countries.” However, he said that it would be a mistake for the U.S. to disengage from the world.
“I believe America must remain engaged for our own security,” the president declared. “I believe the world is better for it. Some may disagree, but I believe that America is exceptional - in part because we have shown a willingness, through the sacrifice of blood and treasure, to stand up not only for our own narrow self-interest, but for the interests of all.”
Presumably, the reference to American exceptionalism, a notion which Obama himself has pooh-poohed in the past, was meant as a rebuke to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent New York Times op-ed column in which Putin had offered his critique of this idea.
At the same time, President Obama recognized that the United States cannot always go it alone. He supported collective action to address mass atrocities, including “multilateral use of military force” in certain circumstances:
We live in a world of imperfect choices. Different nations will not agree on the need for action in every instance, and the principle of sovereignty is at the center of our international order. But sovereignty cannot be a shield for tyrants to commit wanton murder, or an excuse for the international community to turn a blind eye to slaughter. While we need to be modest in our belief that we can remedy every evil, and we need to be mindful that the world is full of unintended consequences, should we really accept the notion that the world is powerless in the face of a Rwanda or Srebrenica? If that's the world that people want to live in, then they should say so, and reckon with the cold logic of mass graves.
The Obama speech focused in substance on the troubled Middle East region, with particular attention to Syria, Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
In broad terms, President Obama said that the United States would be prepared to “use all elements of our power, including military force,” to secure certain core interests in the Middle East and North Africa:
We will confront external aggression against our allies and partners, as we did in the Gulf War.
We will ensure the free flow of energy from the region to the world. Although America is steadily reducing our own dependence on imported oil, the world still depends upon the region's energy supply, and a severe disruption could destabilize the entire global economy.
We will dismantle terrorist networks that threaten our people…
And finally, we will not tolerate the development or use of weapons of mass destruction. Just as we consider the use of chemical weapons in Syria to be a threat to our own national security, we reject the development of nuclear weapons that could trigger a nuclear arms race in the region, and undermine the global non-proliferation regime.
Obama warned the assembled world leaders that if there is no strong Security Council resolution to verify that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is keeping its commitments with regard to the collection and destruction of all of its chemical weapons, with “consequences” for non-compliance, “then it will show that the U.N. is incapable of enforcing the most basic of international laws.” That sounds a lot like what former President George W. Bush said about the UN ten years ago regarding the Security Council’s failure to act forcefully with respect to the Middle East dictator of that day who had used chemical weapons against his own people – Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.
In a direct slap at Russia, which has continued to raise questions about the source of the August 21, 2013 chemical weapons attack in Syria, Obama declared that “It is an insult to human reason - and to the legitimacy of this institution - to suggest that anyone other than the regime carried out this attack.” He then proceeded to claim that it was his “credible military threat” which sparked diplomatic progress to resolve the chemical weapons crisis peacefully.
If Obama thinks that the threat of “unbelievably small” strikes – to quote Secretary of State John Kerry – had any real effect other than to make Obama look foolish, he is living in a world of make-believe.
In any event, it remains to be seen whether discussions underway among the permanent members of the Security Council will lead to consensus on a binding resolution. Russia is resisting any mention of the use of force in the event of Syrian non-compliance. The United States, the United Kingdom and France want a resolution with real teeth, which means incorporation of the Security Council’s enforcement powers set forth in Chapter VII of the UN Charter. French President François Hollande later told reporters, following his own speech to the General Assembly, that an eventual resolution may focus on sanctions as the Security Council’s enforcement mechanism.
Further proof of Obama’s make-believe state of mind was his assertion that “the world is more stable than it was five years ago.” In truth, we have gone from bad to much worse.
The Middle East is literally in flames, with more than 120,000 dead in Syria alone and millions of displaced Syrians overrunning the capacities of neighboring countries to receive them.
Christians are being slaughtered or driven from their homes all over the Middle East.
While Egypt remains in turmoil, Obama misrepresented his administration’s policy there as one of neutrality. In fact, the Obama administration had tilted heavily in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood. Obama threw former President Muhammad Hosni Mubarak under the bus. Mubarak was a repressive dictator to be sure, but the Egyptians are even worse off since Mubarak’s overthrow, while the continuing unrest in Egypt has triggered instability in the surrounding region.
Obama boasted about putting an end to the war in Iraq. However, tragic killings have greatly intensified since Obama pulled out all American troops. Even he acknowledged that “killings and car bombs continue to be a horrific part of life.” To be more precise, this year alone, according to the United Nations, almost 5,000 people have been killed and another 12,000 injured in Iraq. That is much less stable a situation than when Obama took office, not to mention the fact that Iran has consistently used Iraqi air space to conduct weapons transfers to the Assad regime.
Obama tried to put a positive spin on the outcome in Libya, although acknowledging “the death of four outstanding U.S. citizens who were committed to the Libyan people, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.” He said that the situation would have been much worse in Libya had Muammar Gaddafi been allowed to remain in power. The price of forcing regime change of a dictator who posed no strategic threat to the United States, however, was to unleash jihadists and the flow of weapons to Syria and neighboring countries in Africa, which is far more destabilizing than conditions in the region were five years ago.
Indeed, jihadist violence is on the march in many parts of Africa. Yet the terrorist group operating in Africa which Obama chose to focus on was the Lord's Resistance Army. This terrorist group is described by some as a cultist militia driven in part by an extreme fundamentalist Christian ideology. To be sure, the Lord’s Resistance Army has committed many atrocities, including rapes, killings, recruiting children as fighters and forcing girls to be sex slaves. But it is a declining threat in comparison to the rapid rise of the Islamic jihadists. Ironically, while Obama decided to send military advisors to help the Central African Republic combat the Lord’s Resistance Army, he neglected to mention in his General Assembly speech that the Central African Republic government was overthrown by an Islamic rebel coalition known as Séléka, who have committed unspeakable atrocities of their own.
President Obama devoted a substantial portion of his General Assembly speech to Iran. He welcomed signs of flexibility by the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani.
“We are encouraged that President Rouhani received from the Iranian people a mandate to pursue a more moderate course,” Obama said. “Given President Rouhani's stated commitment to reach an agreement, I am directing John Kerry to pursue this effort with the Iranian government.”
However, Rouhani’s power is reflected from the real source of all major decision-making in Iran – Ayatollah Khamenei. And while Khamenei appears willing for the time being to give Rouhani some latitude in negotiations with the West, he can and likely will stop any meaningful dialogue at a moment’s notice if he so chooses.
In an effort to play nice with Iran in his speech, Obama gave tacit acknowledgment to the Iranians’ complaints of “a history of U.S. interference in their affairs, and America's role in overthrowing an Iranian government during the Cold War.” He equated this complaint with Americans’ complaint of “an Iranian government that has declared the United States an enemy, and directly - or through proxies - taken Americans hostage, killed U.S. troops and civilians, and threatened our ally Israel with destruction.”
Obama’s moral relativism is bad enough. But he should also check his history regarding all of the circumstances surrounding the overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953. Yes, the CIA helped bring about the coup d’etat that overthrew Mossadegh. But what the mullahs running Iran today want us to forget is that the founder of the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini, and his mentor Ayatollah Sayyed Kashani, the chief representative of the Muslim Brotherhood in Iran at that time, took part in the CIA-organized demonstrations against Mossadegh. As described by Robert Dreyfuss in his book "The Devil’s Game," “The military coup that ousted Mossadegh was coupled with demonstrations financed by the CIA, using crowds loyal to Kashani and organized by the clergy…”
In other words, the Iranian people have as much to complain about regarding the role of their own clergy in the overthrow as about the role of the CIA. But Obama is giving the post-1979 Iranian leaders’ self-serving narrative, used to whip up anti-American sentiment, more than its due.
Obama also pledged that the United States is “not seeking regime change” in Iran. Obama proved this in 2009 when he turned his back on Iranian dissidents protesting the fraudulent re-election of Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Obama has called for regime change against one of our allies in Egypt, and against Gaddafi and Assad who posed no direct threat to the United States. But when it comes to the repressive, terrorist-sponsoring regime in Tehran, which has killed Americans and is moving towards development of a nuclear bomb, Obama is not willing to exert any pressure for regime change.
With regard to the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, President Obama avoided mention of any sensitive issues such as his previous suggestion of Israeli withdrawal to pre-1967 borders with some land swaps. He also reaffirmed that “the United States will never compromise our commitment to Israel's security, nor our support for its existence as a Jewish state,” while also restating “the belief that the Palestinian people have a right to live with security and dignity in their own sovereign state.” He gave no indication where the current negotiations stood, except to say that “Current talks are focused on final status issues of borders and security, refugees and Jerusalem.”
President Obama concluded his speech on a note of hope for the future. He invoked the spirit of the Declaration of Independence when he said “We are ready to meet tomorrow's challenges with you - firm in the belief that all men and women are in fact created equal, each individual possessed with a dignity that cannot be denied.” However, in typical Obama fashion, he omitted the part that all “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”
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