Politics & Policy

Obama’s Miss at the U.N.

Instead of articulating American priorities, he obsesses over tolerance.

President Obama’s U.N. speech on Tuesday had clearly undergone substantial rewrites over the last few days. In the eleventh hour, the main goal became repairing the damage done by the administration’s inept response to riots in the Middle East and the murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens.

Typically, in advance of the president’s speech, the administration outlines its agenda for the upcoming U.N. session. Assistant secretary of state Esther Brimmer had the honors this year. Last Friday, she summarized this year’s priorities as follows:

1. Peace and Security: Implement “international sanctions on Iran’s illicit nuclear program,” strengthen “global nonproliferation and counterterrorism regimes,” bolster U.N. peacekeeping and conflict resolution, promote “greater global cooperation on atrocity prevention,” and oppose “unilateral Palestinian actions in the U.N. on issues that can only be achieved through direct negotiations.”

2. U.N. Reform: Lock in “last December’s historic 5 percent reduction in the U.N. regular budget,” strengthen accountability and oversight, and “support streamlining and greater effectiveness.”

3. Human Rights: Bring attention to “abuses worldwide in places like Iran, Syria, North Korea, and Sudan,” “strengthen U.N. human-rights and rule-of-law activities worldwide and promote gender equality,” and seek reelection to the Human Rights Council.

4. Poverty Alleviation and Development: Press for “more effective and efficient support across the UN for poverty eradication and sustainable development.”

Usually, the president’s speech highlights and defines these goals, but Tuesday, President Obama barely addressed any of them. U.N. reform received no mention at all. Poverty and development was relegated to a six-sentence paragraph of generalities. Human rights arose only once the discussion turned to freedom of religion and expression surrounding the riots and assaults on U.S. embassies.

Key issues such as the humanitarian crisis in Syria, Iran’s nuclear program, and Israel-Palestinian peace were dispensed with just a few paragraphs of recycled rhetoric:

The president called for an end to the Assad regime, but unveiled no new ideas or any interest in acting outside of the Security Council, which is held hostage by Russia and China.

He correctly stated that a nuclear-armed Iran would “threaten the elimination of Israel, the security of Gulf nations, and the stability of the global economy [and] risks triggering a nuclear-arms race in the region.” He warned that “the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” But since the administration stood by its conciliatory stance toward Iran and established no firm redline,  it is doubtful this speech reassured the Israelis and the world or did much to strike fear in the ayatollahs.

He called for a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, which has been the U.S. goal for . . . roughly two decades. Obama offered no specifics on how to advance the stalled process. Worse, he falsely equated the two parties morally, as if one was not aiding and abetting terrorist attacks on civilians. He also failed to condemn Palestinian efforts to use the U.N. to bolster their statehood claims without negotiating with Israel.

The lion’s share of the speech was dedicated to condemning intolerance, beginning with a lengthy condemnation of a YouTube video, and continuing with repeated platitudes about a more inclusive world. To be fair, the president’s defense of free speech in the prepared remarks was far stronger than had been previously articulated by the administration. But this was undermined when the president added extemporaneously to the speech (my emphasis):

I know that not all countries in this body share this particular understanding of the protection of free speech. We recognize that. But in 2012, at a time when anyone with a cell phone can spread offensive views around the world with the click of a button, the notion that we can control the flow of information is obsolete. The question, then, is how we respond. And on this we must agree: There is no speech that justifies mindless violence.

The italicized improv lines give unwarranted credence to restrictions on freedom of speech by explicitly acknowledging different nations have differing definitions of such rights.

Moreover, the president’s statements ignore reality. The recent violence is unjustified, but it is not mindless. The rioters know why they are acting violently; it is often deliberate and coordinated. They believe it serves their goal of suppressing speech through intimidation. And it is too often tolerated or even supported by governments whose “particular understanding of the protection of free speech” allows for blasphemy laws, bans on hate speech, and other restrictions.

Bizarrely, the president backhandedly endorsed global efforts to restrict free speech, especially the “defamation of religions” resolutions offered by the Organization of the Islamic Conference in the U.N. and its Human Rights Council:

The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam. Yet to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see when the image of Jesus Christ is desecrated, churches are destroyed, or the Holocaust is denied. Let us condemn incitement against Sufi Muslims, and Shiite pilgrims.

Presumably the president thought that he was being clever, turning the argument around on those calling for restrictions on free speech, but his argument can hardly be expected to persuade.

Overall, President Obama spent less time defending free speech than he did outlining a vague vision for a world with tolerance and diversity as its key ideals. Perhaps this lopsided emphasis sought to reinforce the administration’s dubious claim that only hateful speech is to blame for the attacks on our embassies, but the overall effect was to lend credibility to the notion that governments should be policing speech.

In reality, the video is a pretext. The problem the rioters have is with America and its values. But the president is either unable or unwilling to grasp this.

In the end, the president’s U.N. speech did not effectively defend freedom of speech, nor did it offer the world a compelling explication of U.S. foreign policy. Given his unwillingness to do the former, he should have at least attempted the latter.

— Brett D. Schaefer is the Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs at the Heritage Foundation. 

Brett D. SchaeferBrett D. Schaefer is The Heritage Foundation’s Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs.


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