It’s hard to resist being initially charmed with President Obama’s speeches, such as the one he delivered to the United Nations. It’s only when you start parsing them that the doubts begin.
An oration that began with a tribute to the United Nations and ended with an invocation of Martin Luther King can’t be all bad, and it wasn’t. But there was enough dodging and weaving and a defense of the indefensible to make your teeth grind.
Obama focused on two central issues, and his statements were seemingly commendable. He pledged to make a deal on Iran’s nuclear program and get a peace agreement brokered between Israel and Palestine.
“We are not seeking regime change, and we respect the right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy,” he said, and welcomed recent statements by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and Iran’s new President Hassan Rowhani that the country is not pursuing nuclear weapons. Left unaddressed was America’s obsession with Iran.
Now that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is out of the presidency, it is harder to argue that Iran needs to be singly defanged because it is uniquely irrational. Still, any overture toward Iran is to be appreciated, even if a better approach, as Professor Stephen Zunes has noted, would be to establish a nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East that included both Iran and an Israel.
Speaking of Israel, it is here that the President was really grating, since he drew a false equivalency between the Israelis and Palestinians. He also pledged U.S. support for Israel’s “existence as a Jewish state,” which legitimizes second-class citizenship for Arab Israelis.
Surprisingly, Syria was number three on Obama’s priorities. Here, he attempted to salvage U.S. credibility after its retreat from military action against Syria by extolling the virtues of the deal with the Assad regime to get rid of the country’s chemical weapons.
“I do not believe that military action by those within Syria or by external powers can achieve a lasting peace,” Obama said. “Nor do I believe that America or any nation should determine who will lead Syria. That is for the Syrian people to decide.”
Elsewhere, Obama’s speech was a mix of the good and the bad.
He had words of affirmation for the Arab Spring, even if he glided past U.S. support for tyrannical regimes in the region , such as in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
He made a welcome reference to the end of the Iraq War and the impending end to the international intervention in Afghanistan but inexcusably claimed that the use of drones was justified, since it was done only when “there’s a near certainty of no civilian casualties.” This flies in the face of reality, as various organizations have documented hundreds of civilian deaths due to American drones in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia.
An interesting, honest point that Obama made was that the core interests the United States would always act to protect internationally included “the free flow of energy.” What went unmentioned, however, was how much pain and suffering this commitment has caused in the Middle East, from the 1953 overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Actions such as these that have made it hard to be dismissive of the talk of American empire as mere “propaganda,” as Obama did in his speech. For the global perception of the United States to change, U.S. policy will have to be transformed, too.
Amitabh Pal, the managing editor of The Progressive and co-editor of the Progressive Media Project, is the author of “ ‘Islam’ Means Peace: Understanding the Muslim Principle of Nonviolence Today” (Praeger).