After having read the President’s address yesterday to the United Nations, I fear that the next three-and-one-half years will not only be difficult for the United States, but also for the world. And while Mr. Obama may claim he is looking forward, he sounded like he was doing his utmost to looking back in order to distinguish himself from his predecessor. Indeed, at times, that seemed the animating theme of the speech.
In order to make sure he distinguished himself adequately from George W. Bush, his rhetoric seemed at cross purposes. At one point, he reminds us that the “Assembly’s Charter” reaffirms
. . . the freedom to speak your mind and worship as you please. . . ; the ability of citizens to have a say in how you are governed, and to have confidence in the administration of justice. For just as no nation should be forced to accept the tyranny of another nation, no individual should be forced to accept the tyranny of their own people.
And while he opposes the tyranny of their own people, he wants to make clear he’s not promoting democracy as did his predecessor:
Democracy cannot be imposed on any nation from the outside. Each society must search for its own path, and no path is perfect. Each country will pursue a path rooted in the culture of its people and in its past traditions. And I admit that America has too often been selective in its promotion of democracy. But that does not weaken our commitment; it only reinforces it. There are basic principles that are universal; there are certain truths which are self-evident — and the United States of America will never waver in our efforts to stand up for the right of people everywhere to determine their own destiny.
This paragraph reads like a mishmash of empty rhetoric, noble notions and anti-Bush broadsides (only semi-cleverly concealed Bush-bashing). So, how does a people go about determining its destiny if it suffers under the tyranny of its own people? Is there a means other than fee elections? He didn’t say nor did he include self-determination in his four pillars of U.S. foreign policy (and left out security, though one could say that was implied under the pillar of peace).
It seemed he thought that if we just ended the “misperceptions and misinformation about my country,” well, then the United States would be a force for a good. He just doesn’t understand that some nations further such misperceptions and generate such misinformation to further their own ends. Extending an olive branch to Iran has done nothing to soften their hostility to the United States (nor their repression of their own people). The leaders of that regime believe they need the ideology of the “Great Satan” to survive.
No wonder Nile Gardiner wonders if this speech were Obama’s most naïve ever.
Former United States Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton was beyond wondering; he found the speech most naïve:
It was a speech high on the personality of Barack Obama and high on multilateralism, but very short in advocating American interests.
It was a very naïve, Wilsonian speech, and very revealing of Obama’s foreign policy. . . . Overall, it was so apologetic for the actions of prior administrations, in an effort to distance Obama from them, that it became yet another symbol of American weakness in the wake of the president’s decision to abandon missile sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, and his recent manifest hesitation over what to do in Afghanistan.
Also noting how frequently he apologized for his country, Hudson Institute Senior Fellow Anne Bayefsky thought the president was playing “to his audience, which was largely an undemocratic one. . . [and in] In that way, he succeeded“:
The contrast between this reaction and the hostility that generally greeted Pres. George W. Bush was stark. At its core, the difference is based on how each president challenged the U.N.
In contrast to President Bush, President Obama clearly sees the U.S. as the source of U.S.–U.N. friction. He may have intended his speech to come across as earnest and humble, but it instead came across as if he were trying to justify America’s worthiness to be a member of the U.N. Giving the impression that the U.S. should aspire to be worthy of acceptance by the likes of Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, Russia, China, Cuba, and other repressive regimes is appalling.
Agreeing with Bolton that the speech was extradordinarily self-referential, I just have to end with a line from the beginning of the speech, perhaps its absolute cheesiest “the expectations that accompany my presidency* . . are rooted in the hope that real change is possible”. (Emphasis added.) How self-serving and how redolent of his rhetoric last fall. It’s as if he’s still on the campaign trail.
Maybe that’s where he really wants to be.
*Yes, I know he goes on to qualify that by saying, “These expectations are not about me.” But, that line wouldn’t be necessary if it didn’t sound like the expectations were about him.