If asked to grade President Obama’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly yesterday, we would award it an “incomplete.” Despite the considerable evidence to the contrary, the administration doubled down on its assertion that a crude anti-Islamic video is responsible for sparking “outrage throughout the Muslim world.” This persistent self-deception has the regrettable effect of legitimizing a cynical excuse for the protests, of obscuring the nature of the attack in Benghazi, and of protecting the administration from having to acknowledge that the president’s 2009 Cairo speech was a failure. It was telling that in his discussion of the embassy violence, the word “terrorism” was never uttered.
The president’s defense of free speech in the United States was, at best, adequate. He explained to those “who ask why we don’t just ban such a video” that “the answer is enshrined in our laws,” and he devoted a full minute to the elucidation of the American tradition. Here he was at his best. At points, however, he was unable to resist devolving into moral relativism. It is indisputably true that not every country enjoys America’s “understanding of the protection of free speech.” But we wish the president had defended, or at least stated, the traditional American understanding that free speech is a natural right of all human beings. Instead, he said that “we accept” it is not — a peculiar resignation given his later passages casting democracy as a universal good.
The problem wasn’t so much the speech as the fact that it doesn’t jibe with the administration’s past rhetoric — or, more important, its actions. Going forward, the administration should make a full-throated defense of free speech and an explanation of its importance in this country a part of its public diplomacy.
Further, it should cultivate and lead a Western coalition against ongoing attempts to impose international laws against blasphemy. Alas, the momentum is building in the opposite direction, and America is playing ball with the censors. Since 1999, the Organization of the Islamic Conference has used the United Nations as the stage for its push for censorship, achieving non-binding anti-defamation resolutions in all but one year. In 2009, the United States cosponsored with Egypt a Human Rights Council resolution that encouraged member nations to crack down on the “negative stereotyping of religions and racial groups” and to suppress “religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination.” And in 2011, the State Department lent its imprimatur to the so-called “Istanbul Process,” by which the OIC seeks to find ways to implement its speech-chilling agenda.
Finally, the administration should speak up for those persecuted in the Muslim world for alleged offenses against the prophet. If there is a “season of progress,” as the president claimed to the U.N., its fruits are elusive to a great many. To name but a few instances: Earlier this year in Saudi Arabia, a journalist who expressed doubts on Twitter was arrested and faces execution; in 2011, Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian cabinet minister in Pakistan’s government and a vocal critic of the country’s blasphemy laws, was shot dead in broad daylight — there were no repercussions; in 2010, Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian, became the first woman to be sentenced to death for blasphemy (her case, one suspects, has as much to do with a longstanding local dispute as with matters divine); and, as ever, the Copts languish in jails, sentenced on the most frivolous pretexts.
As the Iranian dissidents discovered in 2009, there is a significant gap between the president’s words and the president’s actions. He is on the side of those who seek liberty, at least in theory. “The United States of America will always stand up for these aspirations, for our own people, and all across the world,” Obama orated yesterday morning, his voice rising. In response we might echo Abraham Lincoln’s encouraging words, in a letter to the reluctant General McClellan: “If at any time you feel able to take the offensive, you are not restrained from doing so.”