Presidents can be distinguished by their ability to dominate the news and set the tone of national discussions. Among those who did this throughout their terms were Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and even Richard Nixon. Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush both managed this for a few years of their presidencies, but eventually lost that art. One might have thought, based upon his oratorical skills, that Barack Obama might also have become the center of national attention, but such has not been the case. He lost the rhetorical initiative to the Republican Party early in his first term, and despite his re-election, he has never regained it, largely because, since 2010, the whole country has known that he has little chance of backing his words with deeds.
A little more than a week ago, President Obama gave a speech to the United Nations which is certainly written for the ages. Like many of his predecessor's speeches, it is based upon a particular version of history in which American values are destined to triumph. And in fact, dissenting voices among the foreign policy elite who would question its assumptions are as rare as they have ever been during the whole of my lifetime. The speech received, once again, relatively little attention, but it is worth it to take the time to examine its key passages, analyze their assumptions, and measure them against reality.
"And for America, the choice is clear: We choose hope over fear. We
see the future not as something out of our control, but as something we
can shape for the better through concerted and collective effort. We
reject fatalism or cynicism when it comes to human affairs. We choose
to work for the world as it should be, as our children deserve it to be."
This is, of course, a restatement of the principles of the Enlightenment that have governed American political life since the eighteenth century. The problem, of course, is whether "concerted and collective action" is still possible, either at home or abroad--and the answer is certainly not clear. Let us now turn to the President's remarks on a few key specific issues.
"We believe that right makes might -- that bigger nations should not be
able to bully smaller ones, and that people should be able to choose
their own future. , , ,And we call upon others to join us on the right side of history -- for
while small gains can be won at the barrel of a gun, they will
ultimately be turned back if enough voices support the freedom of
nations and peoples to make their own decisions."
This, it seems to me, expresses the liberal fantasy dear to the hearts of academics like Samantha Power, now our Ambassador to the UN. Essentially it argues that wrongdoing cannot succeed in the world if we can mobilize international public opinion on behalf of right. Economic sanctions represent the limit of the actions which the President and his European allies are prepared to take, and they clearly will not force the Russian government to undo the annexation of Ukraine. The crisis in that nation will most likely end either in a messy compromise that leaves the central government weak and much of the country open to Russian influence, or perhaps even in a change of borders.
" But in this century, we have faced a more lethal and ideological
brand of terrorists who have perverted one of the world’s great
religions. With access to technology that allows small groups to do
great harm, they have embraced a nightmarish vision that would divide
the world into adherents and infidels -- killing as many innocent
civilians as possible, employing the most brutal methods to intimidate
people within their communities.
"I have made it clear that America will not base our entire foreign
policy on reacting to terrorism. Instead, we’ve waged a focused
campaign against al Qaeda and its associated forces -- taking out their
leaders, denying them the safe havens they rely on. At the same time,
we have reaffirmed again and again that the United States is not and
never will be at war with Islam. Islam teaches peace. Muslims the
world over aspire to live with dignity and a sense of justice. And when
it comes to America and Islam, there is no us and them, there is only
us -- because millions of Muslim Americans are part of the fabric of our
"So we reject any suggestion of a clash of civilizations. Belief in
permanent religious war is the misguided refuge of extremists who cannot
build or create anything, and therefore peddle only fanaticism and
hate. And it is no exaggeration to say that humanity’s future depends
on us uniting against those who would divide us along the fault lines of
tribe or sect, race or religion."
While I agree with the last sentence of this passage, I cannot be as optimistic as the President. Even here in the United States the electorate is deeply divided by race and religion. The impartial principles of western civilization that regarded every person as a citizen under the law and religion as a private matter have been in retreat for close to half a century in the Middle East and elsewhere. The President, however, once again went even further, telling Muslims what their religion does and does not allow. Like the Old Testament and the New, the Koran can be read either as a peaceful document or as a call to arms against unbelievers or a warning of apocalyptic conflict. (I am thinking of the book of Joshua in the Old Testament and the Book of Revelation in the new.) Such declarations at the UN should come from Muslim leaders, not Christian American ones.
"As an international community, we must meet this challenge with a
focus on four areas. First, the terrorist group known as ISIL must be
degraded and ultimately destroyed.
"This group has terrorized all who they come across in Iraq and
Syria. Mothers, sisters, daughters have been subjected to rape as a
weapon of war. Innocent children have been gunned down. Bodies have
been dumped in mass graves. Religious minorities have been starved to
death. In the most horrific crimes imaginable, innocent human beings
have been beheaded, with videos of the atrocity distributed to shock the
conscience of the world.
"No God condones this terror. No grievance justifies these actions.
There can be no reasoning -- no negotiation -- with this brand of evil.
The only language understood by killers like this is the language of
force. So the United States of America will work with a broad coalition
to dismantle this network of death."
Here was a declaration of all-out war to the death against ISIL, a much more formidable organization than Al Queda ever was, based upon the premise, once again, that the United States and its allies are now strong enough to prevent mass terrror anywhere in the world. Such power has never been exercised by any government or coalition--except coalitions that included nations that practiced mass terror themselves.
"T It is time for the world -- especially Muslim
communities -- to explicitly, forcefully, and consistently reject the
ideology of organizations like al Qaeda and ISIL.
"It is one of the tasks of all great religions to accommodate devout
faith with a modern, multicultural world. No children are born hating,
and no children -- anywhere -- should be educated to hate other people.
There should be no more tolerance of so-called clerics who call upon
people to harm innocents because they’re Jewish, or because they're
Christian, or because they're Muslim. It is time for a new compact
among the civilized peoples of this world to eradicate war at its most
fundamental source, and that is the corruption of young minds by violent
"That means cutting off the funding that fuels this hate. It’s time
to end the hypocrisy of those who accumulate wealth through the global
economy and then siphon funds to those who teach children to tear it
The President and I have something in common: it was only in the kind of "modern, multicultural world" that he describes, and specifically within the United States of America, that either of us could ever have been born. His language echoes statements made by Franklin Roosevelt during the war that shaped the world in which we have spent our whole lives. But who exactly are the "civilized peoples of the world" who are going to enter into the compact he has in mind? The use of that phrase suggests that there are also uncivilized peoples--who exactly are they? The Muslim world progressed as far towards modernity as it did during the twentieth century, it seems to me, because of the overwhelming prestige that western civilization then enjoyed--in part because of its military supremacy. We cannot however, even if we would, recreate an imperialist coalition to regain control over troubled areas of the Middle East, and nearly every nation in that region is already on one side or the other of the Sunni-Shi'ite divide.
"That means contesting the space that terrorists occupy, including the
Internet and social media. Their propaganda has coerced young people
to travel abroad to fight their wars, and turned students -- young
people full of potential -- into suicide bombers. We must offer an
"That means bringing people of different faiths together. All
religions have been attacked by extremists from within at some point,
and all people of faith have a responsibility to lift up the value at
the heart of all great religions: Do unto thy neighbor as you would do
-- you would have done unto yourself.
"The ideology of ISIL or al Qaeda or Boko Haram will wilt and die if
it is consistently exposed and confronted and refuted in the light of
day. Look at the new Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies --
Sheikh bin Bayyah described its purpose: “We must declare war on war,
so the outcome will be peace upon peace.” Look at the young British
Muslims who responded to terrorist propaganda by starting the
“NotInMyName” campaign, declaring, “ISIS is hiding behind a false
Islam.” Look at the Christian and Muslim leaders who came together in
the Central African Republic to reject violence; listen to the Imam who
said, “Politics try to divide the religious in our country, but religion
shouldn’t be a cause of hate, war, or strife.”"
Again we see the idea that simply stating what is right will make it happen. I suspect Obama, like many millions of other young Americans, learned this idea in universities, which have become pathetically detached from reality.
"There is nothing new about wars within religions. Christianity
endured centuries of vicious sectarian conflict. Today, it is violence
within Muslim communities that has become the source of so much human
misery. It is time to acknowledge the destruction wrought by proxy wars
and terror campaigns between Sunni and Shia across the Middle East.
And it is time that political, civic and religious leaders reject
sectarian strife. So let’s be clear: This is a fight that no one is
winning. A brutal civil war in Syria has already killed nearly 200,000
people, displaced millions. Iraq has come perilously close to plunging
back into the abyss. The conflict has created a fertile recruiting
ground for terrorists who inevitably export this violence.
"The good news is we also see signs that this tide could be reversed.
We have a new, inclusive government in Baghdad; a new Iraqi Prime
Minister welcomed by his neighbors; Lebanese factions rejecting those
who try to provoke war. And these steps must be followed by a broader
truce. Nowhere is this more necessary than Syria."
The new Iraqi Prime Minister is an unknown quantity who has not been able to fill the two most important positions in his government, the ministers of defense and of the interior. And we have made a truce in Syria much harder by insisting that Assad must go.
"And here I’d like to speak directly to young people across the Muslim
world. You come from a great tradition that stands for education, not
ignorance; innovation, not destruction; the dignity of life, not
murder. Those who call you away from this path are betraying this
tradition, not defending it.
You have demonstrated that when young people have the tools to
succeed -- good schools, education in math and science, an economy that
nurtures creativity and entrepreneurship -- then societies will
flourish. So America will partner with those that promote that vision.
"Where women are full participants in a country’s politics or economy,
societies are more likely to succeed. And that’s why we support the
participation of women in parliaments and peace processes, schools and
"If young people live in places where the only option is between the
dictates of a state, or the lure of an extremist underground, then no
counterterrorism strategy can succeed. But where a genuine civil
society is allowed to flourish -- where people can express their views,
and organize peacefully for a better life -- then you dramatically
expand the alternatives to terror."
This is right out of the playbook of the most influential president of the twentieth century, George W,. Bush. The Middle Eastern countries, it says, can move immediately and seamlessly from their current state to modernity. But this is not what has happened in several critical cases.
"And such positive change need not come at the expense of tradition
and faith. We see this in Iraq, where a young man started a library for
his peers. “We link Iraq’s heritage to their hearts,” he said, and
“give them a reason to stay.” We see it in Tunisia, where secular and
Islamist parties worked together through a political process to produce a
new constitution. We see it in Senegal, where civil society thrives
alongside a strong democratic government. We see it in Malaysia, where
vibrant entrepreneurship is propelling a former colony into the ranks of
advanced economies. And we see it in Indonesia, where what began as a
violent transition has evolved into a genuine democracy.
Now, ultimately, the task of rejecting sectarianism and rejecting
extremism is a generational task -- and a task for the people of the
Middle East themselves. No external power can bring about a
transformation of hearts and minds. But America will be a respectful
and constructive partner. We will neither tolerate terrorist safe
havens, nor act as an occupying power. We will take action against
threats to our security and our allies, while building an architecture
of counterterrorism cooperation. We will increase efforts to lift up
those who counter extremist ideologies and who seek to resolve sectarian
conflict. And we will expand our programs to support entrepreneurship
and civil society, education and youth -- because, ultimately, these
investments are the best antidote to violence."
After all this, the President steps backward and argues, correctly, that the people of the Middle East will have to make these changes themselves. How, exactly, we are going to reach their younger generations is not clear. We have not been able to offer our own younger generations a reasonable chance at employment--from college graduates to the children of the old working class.