The Corner

President Obama’s U.N. Speech: A Reflection of His Confused Foreign Policy

President Obama’s fifth speech to the United Nations General Assembly focused on his policy in the Middle East, particularly Syria, Iran, and the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Overall, his remarks illustrated the confusion and irresolution that have plagued his foreign policy in general, to the detriment of American interests.

On Syria, the president clearly displayed his administration’s inconsistencies:

‐ He stated that he does not believe “America or any nation should determine who will lead Syria.” But he also pledged continued support for the “moderate opposition” and stated that “a leader who slaughtered his citizens and gassed children to death cannot regain the legitimacy to lead a badly fractured country.”

‐ He stated that the international community must enforce a ban on chemical weapons noting that the ban has “been agreed to by 98 percent of humanity.” Unfortunately, the legal basis for military intervention to enforce that ban is far from conclusive. In fact, the president’s “willingness to order a limited strike against the Assad regime” arguably runs afoul of a far more sound legal norm — the U.N. Charter’s prohibition on use of force absent Security Council approval unless military force is used in self-defense.    

‐ He acknowledged that the legitimacy of such a strike was questionable, but maintained that, “without a credible military threat, the Security Council had demonstrated no inclination to act at all.” Unfortunately, after failing to get congressional support, Mr. Obama’s threat of military force is no longer credible.

‐ He argued that “a strong Security Council resolution [is needed] to verify that the Assad regime is keeping its commitments” with “consequences if they fail to do so.” Yet, even assuming that Assad is able and willing to meet the ambitious timeline for destroying his chemical weapons, he would be unable to fulfill his promises of cooperation if he is not in power.

On Iran, the president announced renewed diplomatic efforts to convince Tehran to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons stating, “The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested.” This is the most well-trod “untested” path in history. Offers and overtures from President Obama over the past four years failed to persuade Iran to abandon its pursuit of a nuclear program.

Real power in Iran is not with newly elected president Hassan Rouhani, but with the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Khamenei supported Iran’s rejection of America’s previous overtures. The prospect of “isolation” has failed to sway Khamenei thus far and Secretary of State John Kerry is unlikely to convince him to change tack by threatening Iran with the status quo.

In fact, Obama undermined Kerry from the start by stating that “we respect the right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy.” This has long been Iran’s standard retort to U.S. and Israeli concerns about its nuclear program. Also, Iran no doubt noticed that Obama failed to state any consequences of non-cooperation.

Leaving no windmill untilted, the president doubled down on his thus-far unproductive effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute — a dispute that dates to the very beginning of the U.N. The challenges to this effort are well known. But the most evident one is the question of who exactly has the authority to speak for the Palestinian people in negotiations. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas lacks a democratic mandate. But even so, his party only controls the West Bank while the terrorist Hamas party controls the Gaza strip.

Obama acknowledged a Palestinian “right to live with security and dignity in their own sovereign state” and stated that “Israel’s security as a Jewish and democratic state depend[s] on the realization of a Palestinian state.” While he also called on Arab and Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state of Israel, this will no doubt only encourage Palestinian efforts to gain recognition absent a peace agreement and seek membership in more U.N. organizations, as they did with UNESCO in 2011. 

At times, the president’s speech seemed at odds with reality. For instance, he stated that “the world is more stable than it was five years ago.” Yet the speech itself offered numerous examples to the contrary, including the “convulsions in the Middle East and North Africa,” the ongoing threat posed by terrorism, proliferation of chemical weapons, and the atrocities arising from increased civil warfare.

The most salient element of the speech came near the end:

“The danger for the world is not an America that is too eager to immerse itself in the affairs of other countries, or to take on every problem in the region as its own. The danger for the world is that the United States, after a decade of war, rightly concerned about issues back home, aware of the hostility that our engagement in the region has engendered throughout the Muslim world, may disengage creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill.” 

This is a valid concern. Unfortunately, President Obama seems oblivious to the irony that his confused and aimless foreign policy has contributed to this sentiment.

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


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