Politics & Policy

Obama’s Confession

To grasp what is either the bad faith or the dimwittedness of President Obama’s speech to the United Nations, read the following paragraph carefully:

I took office at a time when many around the world had come to view America with skepticism and distrust. Part of this was due to misperceptions and misinformation about my country. Part of this was due to opposition to specific policies, and a belief that on certain critical issues, America has acted unilaterally, without regard for the interests of others. And this has fed an almost reflexive anti-Americanism, which too often has served as an excuse for collective inaction.

Most commentators have read this passage as a confessional apology for America’s historical crimes, especially those allegedly committed by the Bush administration. That is surely how it was intended to be read. Such an interpretation is confirmed when, a few paragraphs later, President Obama announces that, in the future, America will not be torturing people, holding terrorist suspects in Guantanamo, acting unilaterally, etc. America is making a new start, goes the mood music, so let the rest of the world do the same.

But as that shortish paragraph continues, it takes a sudden departure, arguing that there are other causes of distrust towards America, notably “an almost reflexive anti-Americanism,” which “too often has served as an excuse for collective inaction.” These words might almost have been written by President Bush’s speechwriters. President Bush certainly had to manage reflexive anti-Americanism in the run-up to the Iraq War, when Russia, China, and France successfully imposed “collective inaction” on the matter of 18 U.N. resolutions.

An intellectually honest (or even merely logically coherent) argument would have addressed this point. What does America do when other powers obstruct actions necessary either to defend American interests or to implement the collective decisions of international bodies? These actions need not be military; a range of lesser pressures, from withdrawing aid to economic sanctions, is available. Obama’s speech was curiously silent on this key point.

To be sure, he listed a number of measures that he wished to see implemented or that his administration had introduced in the last nine months. But when examined, none of these actions seriously addresses disputes between states or the failure of states and global bodies to solve these and other international problems. Many are simply American concessions to foreign criticism (Guantanamo, “responsibly ending a war” in Iraq, etc., etc.). Others are concessions to America’s adversaries, such as the arms-control talks with Russiaa step to reassure the Kremlin that we still think it is a superpower. And others are utopian visions of peace (a world without nuclear weapons, joining the international fight against climate change, etc.). A further category is that of statements simply showing more enthusiasm about international forums where our enemies control the agenda and dominate the voting:

We have also re-engaged the United Nations. We have paid our bills. We have joined the Human Rights Council. (Applause.) We have signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. We have fully embraced the Millennium Development Goals.

If experience is any guide, our renewed presence on the Human Rights Council, which exists largely for the purpose of excoriating Israel, and from which the United States under George W. Bush withdrew for good reason, will serve mainly to legitimize the agenda of countries such as Libya. And even beyond the council’s fixation on the Mideast, its goals are not ours. Rapporteurs from its committees will arrive in Washington demanding to know why the U.S. violates human rights by failing to adopt a Cuban-style health service, and the Obama administration will likely apologize and promise to do better in the future. The reverse is unlikely to happen. America will not uphold the rights of the disabled, or anybody else, in Sudan or Central Asia. Obama is positioning the United States to accede to the slow transformation of international organizations from diplomatic forums into a framework of international welfare and economic regulation imposed on the West by ramshackle socialist dictatorships and Euro-bureaucracies in tandem.

After his list of desirable outcomes, Obama did concede: “This cannot solely be America’s endeavor.” He went on to call for a “cooperative effort of the whole world.” But just as his speech veered away from confronting the hard realities of inter-state rivalry, so his prescription for the cooperative effort of the whole world turned out to be vague generalities mainly binding on America. The nearest he came to asking for some concrete concession from others was to say, “The world must stand together to insist that international law is not an empty promise and that treaties will be enforced.” How, precisely? Next question!

Four and half thousand words into a 5,000-word speech, Obama finally arrived at democracy and human rights with the words “these cannot be afterthoughts.” Plainly they were. Almost nothing else in the speech depended on them. Obama was addressing governments and bureaucracies rather than people and peoples. There were no policies or programs designed to strengthen popular movements against authoritarian regimes.

Underneath the vast rock-candy mountain of Obama’s insubstantial rhetoric, this was a speech that was both hard-headedly “realist” and naively utopian. “Realist” in that it sought deals with governments of all stripes by promiscuously making concessions to them while staunchly refusing to criticize their faults; utopian in that it had no additional or more persuasive strategy to advance its ambitious aims.

Uncle Sam arrived at the U.N. in penitential mode. He promised to mend his ways, to treat the other governments with proper deference, and to continue to pay everyone’s bills. He can get ovations every time with similar speeches. But he will also continue another trend that began yesterday: losing their respect.

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