UNITED NATIONS – In an eloquently crafted 4,000-word speech to the United Nations in which he invoked the legacy of Nelson Mandela, President Obama insisted upon doubling-down on the current course of U.S. foreign policy, repeating without revision long-standing administration foreign policy platitudes, while providing no new policy initiatives and admitting no U.S. foreign policy failures.
Consider the following:
- Obama suggested the violence in Libya that caused the death of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens was a result of outrage from a 14-minute movie trailer that offended Islam.
- He insisted the “Arab Spring” was a movement toward democracy in the region despite the ascendency of the Muslim Brotherhood and the return of al-Qaida terrorism.
- He chided Iran for developing nuclear weapons without saying what gave him confidence diplomacy and sanctions would stop Tehran after having failed to do so since Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice tried the same policy in the second term of the George W. Bush administration.
Ignoring evidence in recent days the attack in Benghazi that killed Stevens was an al-Qaida-coordinated attack, Obama apologized, after returning to the discredited narrative that the violence was in response to outrage from a “disgusting” 14-minute movie trailer that offended Islam.
“I have made it clear that the United States government had nothing to do with this video, and I believe its message must be rejected by all who respect our common humanity,” Obama told the opening session of the U.N. General Assembly. “It is an insult not only to Muslims, but to America as well – for as the city outside these walls makes clear, we are a country that has welcomed people of every race and religion.”
Promising to be relentless in tracking down the killers and bringing them to justice, Obama dealt with the terrorist attack that killed Stevens much as the Clinton administration had done before the 9/11 attacks – as a law enforcement matter that required perpetrators be punished for their crimes, not as an act of war that demanded a response from the U.S. military.
Obama went so far at to appear to apologize to the Muslim world for U.S. freedom of speech as defined by the First Amendment.
“I know there are some who ask why we don’t just ban such a video,” Obama said. “The answer is enshrined in our laws: Our Constitution protects the right to practice free speech.”
But not stopping there, Obama stressed that the film was offensive to him, suggesting it was also offensive to millions of Americans despite its relative obscurity.
“Like me, the majority of Americans are Christian, and yet we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs,” he explained.
“Moreover, as president of our country, and commander-in-chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day, and I will always defend their right to do so. Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views – even views that we disagree with.”
He acknowledged that “not all countries in this body share this understanding of the protection of free speech.”
The closest he got to condemning the Muslim violence that has spread across North Africa and the Middle East since Sept. 11 was to argue no speech justifies mindless violence.
Choosing to look past the resurgence of Muslim violence aimed at the United States, Obama praised the Arab Spring as a democracy movement, ignoring the extent to which the Muslim Brotherhood has come to ascendency in country after country, including Libya and Egypt.
“It has been less than two years since a vendor in Tunisia set himself on fire to protest the oppressive corruption in his country and sparked what became known as the ‘Arab Spring’,” he recalled. “Since then, the world has been captivated by the transformation that has taken place, and the United States has supported the forces of change.”
He praised Egypt by claiming “our support for democracy put us on the side of the people.”
He justified U.S. involvement in Libya saying the U.S. entered as part of “a broad coalition, and with the mandate of the U.N. Security Council, because we had the ability to stop the slaughter of innocents; and because we believed that the aspirations of the people were more powerful than a tyrant.”
In neither case did Obama refer to his abandonment of Mubarak in Egypt or Gadhafi in Libya, both long-standing allies of the United States.
He again denied American exceptionalism, claiming instead “freedom and self-determination are not unique to one culture. These are not simply American values or Western values – they are universal values.”
Indirectly, Obama tried to recover what is now apparently in shambles – a foreign policy based on engagement with the Muslim world.
“Just as we cannot solve every problem in the world, the United States has not, and will not, seek to dictate the outcome of democratic transitions abroad, and we do not expect other nations to agree with us on every issue,” he said, expressing accommodation.
“Nor do we assume that the violence of the past weeks, or the hateful speech by some individuals, represents the views of the overwhelming majority of Muslims – any more than the views of the people who produced this video represent those of Americans.”
At times sounding almost naïve, Obama pledged the future “must not belong to those who target Coptic Christians in Egypt – it must be claimed by those in Tahrir Square who chanted ‘Muslims, Christians, we are one.’”
When it came to Iran, Obama spoke typically tough but outlined no new policy initiatives and declined to specify whether or not U.S. policy would set any “redline” that would trigger military action as Iran edges closer toward nuclear weapons capability.
“Let me be clear: America wants to resolve this issue through diplomacy, and we believe that there is still time and space to do so. But that time is not unlimited,” Obama said, echoing countless similar pronouncements made by himself or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton since taking office in 2008.
“Make no mistake: A nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained. It would threaten the elimination of Israel, the security of Gulf nations and the stability of the global economy. It risks triggering a nuclear-arms race in the region, and the unraveling of the non-proliferation treaty. That is why a coalition of countries is holding the Iranian government accountable. And that is why the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
On what those steps might be, Obama was silent.
He concluded his speech where he began, promising to prosecute the criminals who killed Stevens and reaching out to the Muslim world in an attempt to make the assassination of a U.S. ambassador not as a failure of his administration but as a “teachable moment” that could lead to yet greater accord with the Muslim world.
“And today I promise you this – long after these killers are brought to justice, Chris Stevens’ legacy will live on in the lives he touched” he promised once again in conclusion.
“In the tens of thousands who marched against violence through the streets of Benghazi; in the Libyans who changed their Facebook photo to one of Chris; in the sign that read, simply, ‘Chris Stevens was a friend to all Libyans.’”