President Obama chose not to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani today, which is a good thing. There has been no action by Iran to show that it is serious about giving up its quest for nuclear weapons; the White House would have been smarter, however, to have ruled it out from the get go and explained why. It might have come across as a matter of principle, or at least evidence that we have some principles.
President Obama’s speech at the General Assembly, however, was a poor one. There were many things wrong with it.
First, the president repeated shopworn and untrue statements that he has ended a decade of war. There is a bloody civil war going on in Syria, which he has chosen for whatever reason(s) not to engage in. There are 100,000 dead Syrians — more than a 1,000 killed by gas — who can attest that the decade of war hasn’t ended. Add to that those slaughtered in Northern Africa, the sectarian strife in Iraq and the bloody repression in Egypt and it becomes clear that he means “ending an era in which America found something worth fighting for.”
It is frankly bizarre for the leader of the free world to flaunt that it is not worth our while to punish an egregious human rights atrocity in Syria, to take one example. What sort of “citizen of the world” has as his mantra that the Americans are taking their ball and going home?
It should be a bitter pill for U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, who has written eloquently about the imperative for the United States to act when horrible crimes against humanity occur. She knows all too well that there is simply no other body or nation on earth than can hold the perpetrators to account. Obama’s boast is a small-minded and ultimately selfish view of America in the world; we’re going home to boost our GDP and the rest of the world’s poor, suffering and subjugated can simply tough it out on their own. It never dawns on him that the United States has an obligation to act, or that our action on behalf of the oppressed is part of what defines our national character. (By the way, is there anything comparable to President Bush’s initiative on eradicating AIDS in Africa that he can claim as having bettered the state of mankind?)
When he says, “As a result of this work, and cooperation with allies and partners, the world is more stable than it was five years ago,” that is pure poppycock. Al-Qaeda is on the march, Egypt is asunder and Iran is much closer to getting the bomb.
Once again he made the case for action in Syria, leaving open the question as to why we haven’t acted but have agreed to a process in which Bashar al-Assad remains secure in power. (“The ban against the use of chemical weapons, even in war, has been agreed to by 98 percent of humanity. It is strengthened by the searing memories of soldiers suffocating in the trenches; Jews slaughtered in gas chambers; Iranians poisoned in the many tens of thousands.”) He no longer bothers to mention the 100,000 dead by non-chemical means. But he’s promising, yes siree, that we’ll get tough if the Russians don’t get Assad’s weapons.
In listing top U.S. interests (e.g. “dismantle terrorist networks that threaten our people”) in the Middle East, he made no mention of democracy, civil liberties or expanding the rights of women. Once again the “citizen of the world” tells people thirsting for liberty that they are not on his to-do list. And as if to justify putting it lower on the list, he uses the Iraq canard to explain why we’re not doing more. (“I also believe that we can rarely achieve these objectives through unilateral American action, particularly through military action. Iraq shows us that democracy cannot simply be imposed by force.”) So where is the plan for promoting liberty in Egypt?
America’s two core objectives, linked together, he told the United Nations are an Israeli-Palestinian deal (which absolutely no nation in the region thinks is possible) and “Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.” As for the latter, he pretends as if he didn’t try engagement for five years. The new plan? It looks a lot like the last five years. He tells the U.N. that Secretary of State John Kerry is being dispensed to deal with the Iranians. When he says “I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested,” you wonder if all the meetings and engagement in the first term was a waste. He no longer bothers with platitudes like “all options are on the table” or a nuclear-armed Iran is “unacceptable.”
Even worse, he proclaimed, “We are not seeking regime change and we respect the right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy.” Why aren’t we seeking regime change, to assist the Iranian people in obtaining a government of their choosing rather than rule by the mullahs? And why on earth would we trust that same regime with a “peaceful” nuclear program?
You wonder if there is anyone in this administration (Samantha Power? Someone at Foggy Bottom? An NSC staffer?) who is appalled by the gap between action and rhetoric and by the complete failure to pair American values and power. A president willing to in essence secure Assad’s rule, write off democratic change in Iran, ignore women’s rights and brag he is leaving the world to its own devices is not (and has not been) one to be swayed by aides’ pleas or speeches on behalf of an America that acts in accordance with its values. He asked today, “While we need to be modest in our belief that we can remedy every evil, while 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?” His answer is yes.
Those who serve this president enable him, taking America far from its historic obligations and moral underpinnings. You wonder if it is worth a line in the resume.