Dissecting President Obama’s U.N. speech
By Shoshana Bryen
WASHINGTON, D.C. — His was an odd speech for a President. He stood before the world and trashed the United States. “The blocks and neighborhoods of this great city tell the story of a difficult decade,” he said of New York, beginning with the attack on the World Trade Center and through the economic collapse that “devastated American families on Main Street.” And he worried that, “Underneath these challenges to our security and prosperity lie deeper fears: that ancient hatreds and religious divides are once again ascendant; that a world which has grown more interconnected has somehow slipped beyond our control.”
America has had a bad decade. We’re devastated. We may turn to ancient hatreds. The world is beyond our control. Is that what Barack Obama thinks of us?
We expected the president of Iran to start his speech with, “President Obama admits his country is on the skids.” He did. “The system of capitalism and the existing world order has proved to be unable to provide appropriate solution to the problems of societies, thus coming to an end.” He noted the horrors of Western colonialism and two World Wars. His take on the September 11th bombings it that there are three theories – all of which implicate the government of the United States.
A terrorist group snookered American intelligence and security measures, meaning we are weak and stupid.
Segments of the American government orchestrated the attack to help Israel.
It was done by a terrorist group, but the American government supported and took advantage of it.
Ahmadinejad believes most people, including Americans, favor the second. The question isn’t who cares what he says, but who absorbed the message that the West is crushed, weak, angry, aggressive and incompetent – and that Iran, Islam and anti-Western forces are the answer. His audience wasn’t in New York, but in the Middle East, Asia and Africa where many people have limited or biased education and limited access to free media for informed understanding.
Delegations from Sweden, Australia, Belgium, Uruguay, Spain, and the United States walked out – correctly, but only adding to the impression that his words only upset the West.
President Obama tried to close his remarks on an up note – hope in the future and he even mentioned “multicultural” New York, where despite the turmoil of the past decade and the angst waiting to burst through, “we see living proof that opportunity can be accessed by all; that what unites us as human beings is far greater than what divides us; and that people from every part of this world can live together in peace.”
We do believe New York and its residents – and all of America and all Americans – are a beacon of hope for millions of people, Iranians among them. Millions of people are trying desperately to get out of there and into here. But juxtaposed against the President’s prior litany of woes, his paean to New York was oddly parochial and not at all comforting.
There is a case to make for America, for capitalism, for American leadership but even those who look to us for economic, security and political succor are unlikely to make a better case for American leadership in the world than Americans make.
The President didn’t make it.
After describing American economic woes, President Obama launched into his now familiar “Look at me” mode. “Let me begin with what we have done. I have had no greater focus as President than rescuing our economy from potential catastrophe.” He’s fighting al Qaeda and leaving Iraq. “We have joined with Russia to sign the most comprehensive arms control agreement in decades… And… came together to strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.” (No mention of sacrificing Israel to Arab demands or Syria’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.) He agreed to reduce emissions, fight climate change, help Pakistani flood victims and Haitian earthquake victims. He mentioned UN sanctions on Iran. (No mention of Russia, China and Turkey being engaged in sanction-busting energy deals with Tehran.)
There were ten paragraphs devoted to the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process.” Some of what he said was fine, but the Israelis and Palestinians are not the fulcrum on which the security of the world is balanced. If he had to talk about them, he might have noted that the body he was addressing was obsessed with Israel to the exclusion of much more immediate and horrible problems and that the UN – by imprisoning hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in camps and installing UNRWA jailers to ensure that they don’t escape – has created the only refugee problem that grows exponentially and passes along the generations. He didn’t.
He did say, “Israel’s existence must not be a subject for debate. Israel is a sovereign state, and the historic homeland of the Jewish people. It should be clear to all that efforts to chip away at Israel’s legitimacy will only be met by the unshakable opposition of the United States. And efforts to threaten or kill Israelis will do nothing to help the Palestinian people – the slaughter of innocent Israelis is not resistance, it is injustice.”
On the other hand, no one should agree that, “Those of us who are friends of Israel must understand that true security for the Jewish state requires an independent Palestine – one that allows the Palestinian people to live with dignity and opportunity.”
The “creation” of Palestine should only follow the righting of the international scales for Israel, which begins when the Arab world abandons the view that the establishment of Israel in 1948 was a mistake that needs correcting. True security will come when Israel has the “secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force” that are the promise of UN Security Council Resolution 242. The President didn’t mention 242.
The last part of the speech was devoted to “human rights,” which he placed in the context of the economy, not good and evil. “In times of economic unease, there can also be an anxiety about human rights. Today, as in past times of economic downturn, some put human rights aside for the promise of short term stability.”
In the West Bank, economic conditions have been improving but human rights have not. Ditto Lebanon, which was unmentioned as its remaining democrats find themselves increasingly under the Syrian heel. Russia, China and Saudi Arabia have had no economic downturn to speak of, but all “put human rights aside” as they please. There has never been an economic upturn in Sudan, but not a word about the struggle of Darfur and southern Sudan. Ditto Zimbabwe and Burma. He noted Korea, as in, “The Korean peninsula… provides the world’s clearest contrast between a society that is dynamic and open, and one that is imprisoned and closed.” No mention of North Korean leadership’s murderous repression. Not a word about the members of the North Korean soccer team who were publicly humiliated and their manager who disappeared after a poor showing at the World Cup. No mention of intrepid North Koreans who manage to reach China but are sent back by Chinese authorities in violation of UN rules.
Not a single word on human rights in China, actually.
Not a word about journalists and dissidents who have been imprisoned in Russia, the breaking up of demonstrations and the mysterious murders of those strong enough, or foolish enough, to challenge the increasingly repressive state. Could the President have named the two Russians scheduled to meet with American diplomats but who were arrested before the meetings?
There was a mild rebuke of Iran, but not a word about the thousands of Iranians imprisoned, raped and killed for protesting a stolen election. Nothing about Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, the woman sentenced to be stoned to death in Iran for adultery, and who, according to the AP, “was lashed 99 times last week in a separate punishment meted out because a British newspaper ran a picture of an unveiled woman mistakenly identified as her.” Was the speech not long enough to get to her?
Maybe it would have been if not for those ten paragraphs on the “peace process.”
Bryen is senior director of security policy of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. Her column is sponsored by Waxie Sanitary Supply in memory of Morris Wax, longtime JINSA supporter and national board member.