As he waited in the wings at the United Nations, President Obama was struck with this sledgehammer from Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff:
Tampering… in the affairs of other countries is a breach of international law and is an affront of the principles that must guide the relations among them, especially among friendly nations. A sovereign nation can never establish itself to the detriment of another sovereign nation. The right to safety of citizens of one country can never be guaranteed by violating fundamental human rights of citizens of another country.
This impassioned defense of national sovereignty and fundamental human rights (self-serving as it might have been) was followed by a speech from Mr. Obama that was almost a parody of how other countries see the United States — self-referential, militaristic, whiny, petulant, and riddled with faux humility and underlying threats.
He began, naturally enough, with “my time as President.” Mr. Obama told the assembled, “Some of our most urgent challenges have revolved around… our efforts to recover from the worst economic crisis of our lifetime.” The people of Syria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Mali, Libya, Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Darfur, Sudan and South Sudan, and Nigeria might be forgiven if, in their time, the “most urgent challenges revolved around” war, physical insecurity, and brutal rulers.
Mr. Obama’s favorite — but mistaken — mantra, “we have worked to end a decade of war” followed. American participation in the Iraq war was closer to two decades [which he cannot acknowledge lest he remind people that President Clinton presided over as many years as President Bush, and his tenure included the odious Oil for Food debacle]. It was the inability of Presidents Bush (41) and Clinton to force Iraq to meet the terms of the UN Security Council Ceasefire Resolution that reignited open warfare under President Bush (43).
Mr. Obama conflated an American military presence with war and its absence with the absence of war. “Five years ago, nearly 180,000 Americans were serving in harm’s way, and the war in Iraq was the dominant issue in our relationship with the rest of the world. Today, all of our troops have left Iraq. Next year, an international coalition will end its war in Afghanistan, having achieved its mission of dismantling the core of al Qaeda that attacked us on 9/11.”
The American departure from Iraq fueled today’s sectarian fighting, and our departure from Afghanistan will have little impact on the Taliban’s belief that the Afghan war should end only with its reoccupation of Kabul. Whether the U.S. should have remained in those countries is food for esoteric debate, but it is high-handed to suggest that the departure of American troops brings peace, and arrogant to ignore that people in those countries remain “in harm’s way.”
And then, there’s the whiny part:
I know there are those who have been frustrated by our unwillingness to use our military might to depose Assad… Others have suggested that my willingness to direct even limited military strikes… shows that we have learned nothing from Iraq, and that America continues to seek control over the Middle East for our own purposes… the United States is chastised for meddling in the region, and accused of having a hand in all manner of conspiracy; at the same time, the United States is blamed for failing to do enough to solve the region’s problems, and for showing indifference toward suffering Muslim populations. I realize some of this is inevitable, given America’s role in the world.
America has been attacked by all sides of this internal conflict, simultaneously accused of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, and engineering their removal from power.
Damned if we do and damned if we don’t. It’s damned tough to be a superpower.
And then there’s arrogance.
The United States has a hard-earned humility… The notion of American empire may be useful propaganda, but it isn’t borne out by America’s current policy or public opinion. Indeed… the danger for the world is not an America that is eager to immerse itself in the affairs of other countries, or take on every problem in the region as its own. The danger for the world is that the United States… aware of the hostility that our engagement in the region has engendered throughout the Muslim World, may disengage.
Was Muslim hostility engendered by “our engagement” in Libya? No, says Mr. Obama. “I know that some now criticize the action in Libya (and) point to problems that the country now confronts… No one is more mindful of these problems than I am… But does anyone truly believe that the situation would be better if Gaddafi had been allowed to kill, imprison, or brutalize his people into submission… We live in a world of imperfect choices.”
So, for HIS “engagement,” the choices are imperfect, but President Bush’s “engagement” in Iraq, where Saddam was indeed “allowed to kill, imprison (and) brutalize his people” and use poison gas on the Kurds, “engendered hostility” in the “Muslim World.”
Mr. Obama then described America’s “core interests” as four variations on the theme of his ability to order American forces to war in other places:
“Confront external aggression against our allies and partners.”
“Ensure the free flow of energy from the region to the world.”
“Dismantle terrorist networks that threaten our people.” Acknowledging that this is best done with partners, nevertheless, “When it’s necessary to defend the United States against terrorist attacks, we will take direct action.”
“Not tolerate the development or use of weapons of mass destruction.”
Yes, said Mr. Obama, democracy, human rights, and open markets are important, but “I also believe that we can rarely achieve these objectives through unilateral American action — particularly with military action. Iraq shows us that democracy cannot be imposed by force.”
The people of Iraq, Mr. Obama’s bête noir, fought with American troops against the al Qaeda presence in their country and voted more than once under American protection. Iraqis might respectfully suggest that democracy and human rights can only grow under conditions of security — whether imposed by their own government, or by our military.
Mr. Obama left the world with a warning. “America must remain engaged for our own security (and) I believe the world is better for it.” But watch out, because, “I must be honest, though: we are far more likely to invest our energy in those countries that want to work with us.”