On September 25, U.S. President Barack Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly, delivering a nuanced and eloquent defense of the right to freedom of speech, liberty, and democracy.
The speech was one of the most significant President Obama has delivered during his presidency. Unlike his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, which was carefully framed with deliberate ambiguity regarding compliance with international law, the September 25 address to the General Assembly constitutes a straightforward and powerful defense of democracy and the values of liberty which it expresses.
In particular, President Obama addressed directly the issue of freedom of speech and violent reactions to protected speech that offends Muslims or members of other religions, including the violent actions that led to the deaths of U.S. Ambassador Chirstopher Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi on the night of September 11-12, 2012.
On Syria, however, the president did not say anything significant or new.
If this speech were to embody the real and guiding principles of a second-term Obama foreign policy, its content would be highly significant.
But as we and others have remarked, there is often a gap between the president’s eloquent speeches and the actions of his administration in the real world. As The Daily Star noted in its editorial following the speech,
A rough translation to English of lyrics to a popular Arabic song goes something like this: “When I hear your words I am fascinated, When I see your actions I am flabbergasted.”
These are the sentiments of many people in this part of the world on the occasion of Tuesday’s speech by President Barack Obama before the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
They might also apply to past addresses there by Obama’s predecessors George Bush, Bill Clinton, and other presidents over the past several decades.
The verbal prowess might differ, but the content is usually the same. People often hear positive, upbeat and principled rhetoric, the kind that used to give hope to the Palestinian people, or the wider Arab world.
While people in this region might have been genuinely impressed with the content of some of these speeches in the past, the audience these days has become considerably more cynical, and with good reason.
In order to realize any of the lofty goals laid out in such addresses, several things are required: political will, the tools to succeed and a feasible time frame.
When a politician who enjoys the stature and resources that Obama does makes a decision to talk about the burning issues of the day, he should be prepared to make an effort to put out the fire. Otherwise, the difference between words and actions will lose him more and more of the audience.
–Editorial, “Deeds, not words,” The Daily Star (Beirut), September 26, 2012.
If the speech does represent President Obama’s vision of his foreign policy for a second term, if re-elected, he will have his work cut out for him. For starters, he will have to deal much more effectively with the civil war in Syria, and address the human rights violations that were the subject of President Jimmy Carter’s op-ed piece in the New York Times on June 24, 2012.
See The Trenchant Observer, “’A time to break silence’: Dr. King on the Vietnam war, and President Carter on America’s human rights violations,” June 27, 2012 (revised June 28, 2012).
This would seem to be a tall order for any president. Yet however skeptical if not cynical we may become, we should always hold out some hope that the President, freed from the perceived imperatives of a re-election campaign, might in his search for a place in history find a higher path that leads away from his vision of perrenial warfare, and towards a vision of peace.
If Obama were to focus on visions of peace and how to achieve them, instead of inevitable grinding war and warfare, he might well find in his 2012 address to the General Assembly a skeletal framework for a foreign policy which though deeds could help place him among the great presidents of the United States.
To achieve that goal, as David Ignatius has pointed out, he will need to emerge from the shadows and into the light where the world can see his and America’s actions. For only from there, in the light of day, can he lead the international community in pursuit of a reinvigorated vision of international peace, and a strategy of concrete actions through which that vision might be achieved.
Without such a shift in approach, President Obama’s place in history will forever be diminished by his foreign policy failures, his violations of human rights and international law, and the failure of his strategic vision for America’s actions in the world.
The Trenchant Observer