September 28, 2016
On September 20, 2016 President Obama addressed the UN General Assembly (UNGA) for the last time (*). His remarks had depth like all his other major foreign policy speeches. Some analysts read it in the light of the conversation regarding his legacy; others, according to their field of interest, focused on certain highlights. Indeed, he said that Russia is attempting to recover glory through force; that in the South China Sea peaceful resolutions of disputes offered by law will mean far greater stability than the militarization of a few rocks and reefs; that Israelis and Palestinians will be better off if Palestinians reject incitement and recognize the legitimacy of Israel, but Israel recognizes that it cannot permanently occupy and settle Palestinian land.
Understandably, the President mentioned America’s achievements as well as those of his administration, the latter in a short paragraph. He said that for most of human history, power has not been unipolar and that the end of the Cold War may have led both America’s adversaries and some of her allies to believe that all problems were either caused by Washington or could be solved by Washington. He added that perhaps too many in Washington believed that as well. He said that America has secured allies; acted to protect the vulnerable; supported human rights and welcomed scrutiny of her own actions; bound her power to international laws and institutions. He was candid enough to say that America cannot do this alone and that the way to meet the challenges of the century was to build more international capacity.
The UNGA which serves as world’s top forum for leaders to address other nations is not the place where they engage in self-criticism if they ever do that. Nonetheless, President Obama was able to say that while America made her share of mistakes over the last 25 years she has strived to align better her actions with her ideals. Insofar as his two terms are concerned, Mr. Obama himself has admitted that without adequate preparation for the “day after” the intervention in Libya became a failure. No other leader has shown the courage to say that. And, insofar as the last 25 years are concerned many countries have for long reached the conclusion that the US invasion of Iraq which the President had opposed at the time did not conform to international law, sidelined the UN, was politically wrong and contributed to region’s current turmoil. This is why President Obama has rightly resisted another war in Syria. Had he approved a major intervention, Middle East leaders would no doubt be blaming him for not following their precise game plan. Being criticized for failing to intervene is in this specific case will be less costly for the US in the long run than being blamed for a failed intervention.
As expected, Mr. Obama dwelt at length on the root causes of the uncertainty, unease and strife which fill societies. He stated the following specifically on the Middle East:
“… Across vast swaths of the Middle East, basic security, basic order has broken down. We see too many governments muzzling journalists, and quashing dissent, and censoring the flow of information. Terrorist networks use social media to prey upon the minds of our youth, endangering open societies and spurring anger against innocent immigrants and Muslims…
“… In countries held together by borders drawn by colonial powers, with ethnic enclaves and tribal divisions, politics and elections can sometimes appear to be a zero-sum game. And so, given the difficulty in forging true democracy in the face of these pressures, it’s no surprise that some argue the future favors the strongman, a top-down model, rather than strong, democratic institutions…
“… We see this mindset in too many parts of the Middle East. There, so much of the collapse in order has been fueled because leaders sought legitimacy not because of policies or programs but by resorting to persecuting political opposition, or demonizing other religious sects, by narrowing the public space to the mosque, where in too many places perversions of a great faith were tolerated. These forces built up for years, and are now at work helping to fuel both Syria’s tragic civil war and the mindless, medieval menace of ISIL.
“The mindset of sectarianism, and extremism, and bloodletting, and retribution that has been taking place will not be quickly reversed. And if we are honest, we understand that no external power is going to be able to force different religious communities or ethnic communities to co-exist for long. But I do believe we have to be honest about the nature of these conflicts, and our international community must continue to work with those who seek to build rather than to destroy…
“… And what is true in the Middle East is true for all of us. Surely, religious traditions can be honored and upheld while teaching young people science and math, rather than intolerance. Surely, we can sustain our unique traditions while giving women their full and rightful role in the politics and economics of a nation…”
Nobody can dispute what he said. And, one can understand his frustration with the region since the Middle East turmoil has dominated his foreign policy agenda for a good part of his two terms in office. The President was right to say that the collapse of colonialism and communism has allowed more people than ever before to live with the freedom to choose their leaders; that despite the real and troubling areas where freedom appears in retreat, the fact remains that the number of democracies around the world has nearly doubled in the last 25 years. Sadly, all of that happened beyond the Middle East.
Regrettably, his message is likely to fall again on deaf ears.