Barack Obama has given another speech on the models of 2009 Cairo that produced a Nobel Peace Prize, and the speech on Syria's use of chemical weapons that began aggressively and retreated to an advocacy of diplomacy.
The latest came at the annual Autumn speech fest of the United Nations, and featured a renewal of his commitment to democracy and equality as the keys to a peaceful world, a praise of his own accomplishments with respect to Iran and Cuba, and setting himself clearly apart from Russia with respect the support of the Assad regime in Syria.
One passage dealt with Russian actions in Ukraine, Obama's own limited counter measures, and his plea for what a realist would call a miracle."Today, we see the collapse of strongmen and fragile states breeding conflict, and driving innocent men, women and children across borders on an . . . epic scale. Brutal networks of terror have stepped into the vacuum. Technologies that empower individuals are now also exploited by those who spread disinformation, or suppress dissent, or radicalize our youth. . . .On this basis, we see some major powers assert themselves in ways that contravene international law. . . .realism . . . requires a managed transition away from Assad and to a new leader, and an inclusive government that recognizes there must be an end to this chaos so that the Syrian people can begin to rebuild. . . .
We recognize the deep and complex history between Russia and Ukraine. But we cannot stand by when the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a nation is flagrantly violated. . . . That’s the basis of the sanctions that the United States and our partners impose on Russia. It's not a desire to return to a Cold War. . . .
We recognize the deep and complex history between Russia and Ukraine. But we cannot stand by when the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a nation is flagrantly violated. . . . That’s the basis of the sanctions that the United States and our partners impose on Russia. It's not a desire to return to a Cold War. . . .Imagine if, instead, Russia had engaged in true diplomacy, and worked with Ukraine and the international community to ensure its interests were protected. That would be better for Ukraine, but also better for Russia, and better for the world -- which is why we continue to press for this crisis to be resolved in a way that allows a sovereign and democratic Ukraine to determine its future and control its territory. . . "
There was also a swipe at his Republican adversaries in Congress.
"The increasing skepticism of our international order can also be found in the most advanced democracies. We see greater polarization, more frequent gridlock; movements on the far right, and sometimes the left, that insist on stopping the trade that binds our fates to other nations, calling for the building of walls to keep out immigrants.. . .
After the speech, US Secretary of State John Kerry met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, with Kerry announcing that they had agreed in principle that it was necessary to work together toward a political solution that would preserve the integrity of Syria.
The program also excerpted speeches by the President of Egypt and the King of Jordan questioning outsiders' determined opposition to the Assad regime.
The next day's headlines featured the first Russian air attacks against militias fighting Assad, and a call by Russian officials that US aircraft stay out of Syrian airspace.
Americans and their allies among anti-Assad militias said that the Russian attack was not against ISIS forces, but against Assad's moderate opponents, including those supported by the US. There were reports of over 70 deaths, close to half of them civilians.
At about the same time, President Obama announced that Nigeria, Malaysia, and Tunisia had joined its coalition against ISIS.
He did not mention that Malaysia has trouble managing its airline, Nigeria cannot deal with a homegrown ISIS-equivalent, or that Tunisia is better known for tourism than armed force.
Israeli commentators heard the same old Obama, while noting Putin was more likely to shape the future of Syria. One prime time news program included a clip from Egyptian television saying that Obama must have been drunk when he spoke. Another showed a Syrian saying, "It is terrorism that is striking us. And if you ask any Arab person today they will say that President Putin is speaking logic."
Palestinians were disappointed that the President did not mention their cause in his UN speech. Perhaps the train of history had left the station without them.
Palestinians were also talking about a "bomb" that their President Abbas would deliver as his UN speech.
When it came, it was closer to a pop-gun. It threatened, but with nothing that had not been said numerous times by the Palestinian leadership. It was also long, repetitious, inciting, inventive in its recitation of ancient and modern history (Temple Mount, Oslo Accords, community violence), and reflective of Palestinian helplessness to do anything more than ask others to solve its problems in the ways it demands.
Responses to Abbas speech were mixed. Some saw it as a threat to stop adhering to the Oslo Accords in keeping with Israel's failure to adhere. Others--including both Prime Minister Netanyahu and Opposition head Yitzhak Herzog--noted its distortions of reality, and the tired claims of putting all the onus on Israel for failure to give Palestinians what they claim to be their's.
A day later, Prime Minister Netanyahu linked Abbas' speech and other incitement to the killing of two Israelis in the West Bank.
The sentiments that Barack Obama expressed in Cairo, about Syrian chemical weapons, and most recently at the UN have been well crafted and attractive in a limited way. They would do well in an undergraduate course about democratic thought, delivered on an American campus. Expressed by the head of an aspiring great power, however, and especially when directed at the Middle East, they provoke wonder about Obama's sense of reality.
Responses from Israeli and Arab commentators deserve attention. This is a tough neighborhood, where talk of equality and human rights passes over the heads of Muslim elites concerned primarily with keeping control of restive populations. Assad's heavy bombing of cities populated by Sunni Muslims, now joined by the Russian airforce, has brought about ethnic cleansing as the major Sunni ethnic/religious group opposed to his own Alawites flows toward Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and on to Europe. It is unfortunate but true that Assad's actions reflect the Muslim Middle Eastern more than anything heard from the American President.