The Region: How non-American

Barack Obama’s speech to the UN General Assembly lacked any assertion of US leadership and any indication that it has a particular set of interests.

Obama at UN 2010 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Obama at UN 2010 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
President Barack Obama’s speech to the UNGA on September 23 was revealing on several levels.
Indeed, I learned something very important about his foreign policy.
He began by discussing terrorism as if it is carried out by faceless, causeless mystery men who have no sponsors, ideology or goals and attack everyone equally.
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Obama explained: “Nine years ago, the destruction of the World Trade Center 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.
Obama should want to win over governments in Muslim majority countries, but he goes a step further, making Muslims 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 it. It would have been especially smart of him to mention Russia, India, and China. 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.
It’s 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.
Obama then discusses the withdrawals from Iraq.
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 US 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 Nonproliferation 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 that such weapons might be used? THEN 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; 10 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 US weak point in that context? I understand he wishes to demonstrate how hard the US is working on this issue. But no matter how much he talks, he has nothing to show for it! A good statesman doesn’t highlight what he cannot do, nor set himself up as the one to blame when nothing happens. He and his administration simply don’t get this and keep promising, flattering and sometimes conceding with no result.
Obama then sets out to prove he is the world’s number- one champion of the Palestinian cause. Generally, he does try to present a balanced policy in line with the historic US 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 its neighbors.”
But much of the speech is word for word what he’s said when meeting Israeli, Palestinian or Arab leaders. What is he trying to achieve at the UN? Last year he promised direct, intensive talks within two months. It took him a year to get direct talks that convene every two weeks.
Then he calls on Israel to freeze building on settlements.
Okay. But he doesn’t balance that by asking the Palestinian side to do anything.
His impotence 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 George W. Bush was president. Certainly, Obama makes a very strong statement supporting Israel’s existence, promising US support for it, and decrying terrorism against Israeli civilians.
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.
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 will have changed. If Obama knows that’s true, why stake his prestige on it, highlight it, and make it seem like the world’s most important issue? There are important clues here to Obama’s worldview.
He stresses US responsibility for problems, even as he asks others to help and finds it hard to remain consistent in asking for mutual compromise. He presents no persuasive reasons why others should do what he wants.
Most importantly, Obama simply doesn’t seem to comprehend the idea that in international affairs, there are people who want to destroy you due to ambition, hatred, ideology and even a desire to hold on to what they have. And not all of them are Republicans.
If the president 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 WASN’T a very strong speech, and it was lacking in any particular American perspective. At no point is there any assertion of US leadership, or any indication that the US has some particular set of interests.
Trying to build bridges with other countries is a necessary task for a president, yet Obama seems to think he can do so by standing in the middle of the bridge.
And so here is the revelation that Obama’s UN speech has brought 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 who thinks the rest of the world is better than America.
The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center and editor of Middle East Review of International Affairs and Turkish Studies. He blogs at