Looking for the right side of history at the U.N.

President Obama’s big speech at the United Nations on Wednesday suffered mostly for being too big.  He covered too much, took too many opportunities to stuff his pet domestic political issues into the discussion, and wandered too far away from the obvious topic of the hour, American strikes on ISIS and other terror groups in Syria.  The key passage of the speech about Islamic extremism was quite good – and very different from Obama’s previous insistence that the Islamic State has nothing to do with religion, or his past tendency to frame all problems in the Middle East as outgrowths of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to say nothing of every single thing he said about foreign policy during his 2012 re-election campaign.  Listening to him talk now brings all of his idiotic campaign boilerplate and juvenile taunts to mind.  The most important passages of this speech could have been delivered by George W. Bush; the segment on Russia is full of things Obama and his supporters mocked Mitt Romney for saying.  A heckler in the U.N. audience could have shouted, Hey, Obama, the Two Thousands called, and they wants their foreign policy back!

One of the reasons this speech droned on for so long was Obama’s insistence on building everything around his “wrong side of history” talking point.  This obliged him to spend a good deal of time reminding listeners how wonderful the modern era is, so why get mixed up with throwbacks like Vladimir Putin and ISIS, who long for the bad old days of the early Twentieth and Tenth Centuries, respectively?  Here’s the part where he reads Putin’s Russia out of the new millennium:

Russia’s actions in Ukraine challenge this post-war order. Here are the facts. After the people of Ukraine mobilized popular protests and calls for reform, their corrupt President fled.  Against the will of the government in Kiev, Crimea was annexed. Russia poured arms into Eastern Ukraine, fueling violent separatists and a conflict that has killed thousands. When a civilian airliner was shot down from areas that these proxies controlled, they refused to allow access to the crash for days. When Ukraine started to reassert control over its territory, Russia gave up the pretense of merely supporting the separatists, and moved troops across the border.

This is a vision of the world in which might makes right – a world in which one nation’s borders can be redrawn by another, and civilized people are not allowed to recover the remains of their loved ones because of the truth that might be revealed. America stands for something different. We believe that right makes might – that bigger nations should not be able to bully smaller ones; that people should be able to choose their own future.

These are simple truths, but they must be defended. America and our allies will support the people of Ukraine as they develop their democracy and economy. We will reinforce our NATO allies, and uphold our commitment to collective defense. We will impose a cost on Russia for aggression, and counter falsehoods with the truth. 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.

Obama is certainly correct to call Russia out for its dreams of empire, but I’m not sure this “right side of history” stuff sells as well as Obama thinks it does.  It’s an essentially passive view of progress as an irresistible tide, not an aggressive defense of the moral and practical superiority of freedom, peaceable competition, economic liberty, and representative government.  It makes the people who see themselves as surfers upon that tide of history feel good about themselves – maybe even a bit smug – but it’s neither persuasive nor terribly insulting to the barbarians, or even such fence-sitters between civilization and anti-civilization as there might be.  It’s also bloodless and dispassionate, which was a big criticism of Obama’s response to the murders of American hostages by the Islamic State.  Much of this U.N. speech sounded like Obama doubling down on his past rhetoric, in an effort to make himself look better for saying things that didn’t go over terribly well last month.

Also, not to put too fine a point on it, but Barack Obama is the one who currently stands accused of violating another nation’s territorial integrity by bombing Syria without the permission of its government.  As is so often the case with this President, he assumes the rules don’t apply to him, because he means well, and he’s Barack Obama.  It’s silly to talk about all this territorial fine print when there are terrorist monsters who need bombing!  After a ridiculous amount of fumbling and a great deal of time spent away from his desk, Obama has finally decided what the Right Thing to Do is, and it should be blindingly obvious to everyone else as well, so what’s all this about “international law?”

The problem is that it’s not just Russia making hay about international law in this case, it’s American allies, too.  It would be one thing to dismiss these concerns and lecture the United Nations about getting hung up on rules and their own sense of parliamentary importance when a menace to all civilization needs to be met in battle, but Obama has always made a very big deal about the importance of the systems he’s currently bypassing.  If I may quote from another speech, the one he made at West Point back in May:

You see, American influence is always stronger when we lead by example.  We can’t exempt ourselves from the rules that apply to everybody else.  We can’t call on others to make commitments to combat climate change if a whole lot of our political leaders deny that it’s taking place.  We can’t try to resolve problems in the South China Sea when we have refused to make sure that the Law of the Sea Convention is ratified by our United States Senate, despite the fact that our top military leaders say the treaty advances our national security.  That’s not leadership; that’s retreat.  That’s not strength; that’s weakness.  It would be utterly foreign to leaders like Roosevelt and Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy.

I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being.  But what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it is our willingness to affirm them through our actions.  And that’s why I will continue to push to close Gitmo — because American values and legal traditions do not permit the indefinite detention of people beyond our borders.  That’s why we’re putting in place new restrictions on how America collects and uses intelligence — because we will have fewer partners and be less effective if a perception takes hold that we’re conducting surveillance against ordinary citizens.  (Applause.)  America does not simply stand for stability or the absence of conflict, no matter what the cost.  We stand for the more lasting peace that can only come through opportunity and freedom for people everywhere.

So what’s exceptional about America is our eagerness to obey the international community, except when Barack Obama thinks it’s really important to drop some bombs, in which case both international law and the U.S. Constitution can take a hike.  (As if this President, of all recent American leaders, is in any position to give a lecture about the “rule of law” even before we get to the use of military force!)  Even if you think he was right to drop the bombs, he’s talking to the United Nations after they’ve been falling for a couple of days, and it’s only happening because of his precarious domestic political position.  He’s not acting in accord with his own definition of “American exceptionalism.”

When he finally got around to talking about ISIS, Barack Obama v.6.02.14 strongly contradicted what Barack Obama v.6.02.03 was saying just a few weeks ago:

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 and 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.

In this effort, we do not act alone. Nor do we intend to send U.S. troops to occupy foreign lands.  Instead, we will support Iraqis and Syrians fighting to reclaim their communities. We will use our military might in a campaign of air strikes to roll back ISIL. We will train and equip forces fighting against these terrorists on the ground. We will work to cut off their financing, and to stop the flow of fighters into and out of the region. Already, over 40 nations have offered to join this coalition. Today, I ask the world to join in this effort. Those who have joined ISIL should leave the battlefield while they can. Those who continue to fight for a hateful cause will find they are increasingly alone. For we will not succumb to threats; and we will demonstrate that the future belongs to those who build – not those who destroy.

There he goes with his “degrade and ultimately destroy” talking point again.  I’m starting to see a little trademark symbol hanging in the air every time Obama or his spokespeople go out of their way to work that phrase into a public statement.  (Might as well throw a TM next to “Network of Death,” too.)  But even has he reinforces a couple of old talking points, including the “no God condones this” effort to question the religious sincerity of the Islamic State, he’s going back on his old statements about “maanging” the problem and looking for “political solutions.”  This man most certainly did not think ISIS understood only the language of force, not until very recently, and he’s never admitted that his previous assessment was incorrect.

The next part of the speech was solid, though, and the President has the right idea about confronting the ideology of ISIS.  Notice, however, that he’s no longer asserting they have nothing to do with Islam.  He’s more properly calling for an Islamic reformation now, a struggle within the Islamic world to reject not just ISIS, but other forms of intolerance and militant thinking found far beyond the caliphate’s borders:

Second, it is time for the world – especially Muslim communities – to explicitly, forcefully, and consistently reject the ideology of al Qaeda and ISIL.

It is the task of all great religions to accommodate devout faith with a modern, multicultural world. 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 are Jewish, Christian or Muslim. It is time for a new compact among the civilized peoples of this world to eradicate war at its most fundamental source: the corruption of young minds by violent ideology.

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 down.

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 into suicide bombers. We must offer an alternative vision.

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 religion: do unto thy neighbor as you would have done unto you.

The ideology of ISIL or al Qaeda or Boko Haram will wilt and die if it is consistently exposed, 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.”

Note: that quote from Sheikh bin Bayyah reads a lot better if you don’t Google him.  You’d think endorsing a fatwa for the murder of American troops would permanently disqualify someone from favorable mention by the President of the United States. although clearly bin Bayyah’s support of Hamas is no big deal, since Obama went out of his way to throw Israel under the bus yet again:

Leadership will also be necessary to address the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. As bleak as the landscape appears, America will never give up the pursuit of peace. The situation in Iraq, Syria and Libya should cure anyone of the illusion that this conflict is the main source of problems in the region; for far too long, it has been used in part as a way to distract people from problems at home. And the violence engulfing the region today has made too many Israelis ready to abandon the hard work of peace. But let’s be clear: the status quo in the West Bank and Gaza is not sustainable. We cannot afford to turn away from this effort – not when rockets are fired at innocent Israelis, or the lives of so many Palestinian children are taken from us in Gaza. So long as I am President, we will stand up for the principle that Israelis, Palestinians, the region, and the world will be more just with two states living side by side, in peace and security.

Note to President Obama: the people taking the lives of Palestinian children away from you are the same ones firing rockets at innocent Israelis.  You’re not doing a very good job of creating the false moral equivalence you’re looking for.  As mentioned above, it’s good that Obama explicitly rejects the idea that the Palestinian conflict is the source of all Middle East unrest, but it’s the Palestinians who need to put their shoulders behind “the hard work of peace” for a while, before that two-state solution looks like anything but folly.

This was soon followed by Obama throwing America under the bus, in a truly bizarre aside about, of all things, Ferguson, Missouri:

I realize that America’s critics will be quick to point out that at times we too have failed to live up to our ideals; that America has plenty of problems within our own borders. This is true. In a summer marked by instability in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, I know the world also took notice of the small American city of Ferguson, Missouri – where a young man was killed, and a community was divided. So yes, we have our own racial and ethnic tensions. And like every country, we continually wrestle with how to reconcile the vast changes wrought by globalization and greater diversity with the traditions that we hold dear.

But we welcome the scrutiny of the world – because what you see in America is a country that has steadily worked to address our problems and make our union more perfect. America is not the same as it was 100 years ago, 50 years ago, or even a decade ago. Because we fight for our ideals, and are willing to criticize ourselves when we fall short. Because we hold our leaders accountable, and insist on a free press and independent judiciary.  Because we address our differences in the open space of democracy – with respect for the rule of law; with a place for people of every race and religion; and with an unyielding belief in the ability of individual men and women to change their communities and countries for the better.

A young man was killed, you say?  Why?  What was he doing at the time of his death?  Who divided that community?  In the same speech where he spent a huge amount of time recounting the history of Western civilization, the post-war international order, and Islam, Obama throws out the story of Ferguson as eleven context-free words, in a bid to ingratiate himself to the audience by talking his own country down.  Of course, he chose an incident that made America look guilty of a sin Barack Obama can’t be personally tainted with.

That’s hardly the first time Obama has presented the United States as something smaller and meaner than the amazing titan of history who currently presides over it; some things never change.

What he’s doing in both the Israel and Ferguson passages is trying to win sympathy from unfriendly listeners by ostentatiously admitting that Western civilization has all sorts of flaws, but we’re trying to do better.  He thinks that’s a gesture of national humility that makes those unfriendly ears more willing to hear the rest of what he has to say.  It’s the same approach he took during his big “American apology” tour in the first year of his presidency.  And it didn’t work at all, did it?  He didn’t win any sympathy in the Middle East by placing himself above and beyond American history: yeah, I can see where you guys are coming from, I get why you don’t like America, you’ve got some excellent points.  But now I’m here, so it’s all going to be different.

A strong dose of confidence would work better, as well as sounding far more agreeable to American listeners.  Instead of looking for the “right side of history,” just say what’s right, and express it as the true belief of the United States and our allies.  Well, most of them.  Yesterday the Administration was heavily touting the participation of five Arab countries in the strikes against ISIS: Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.  How are they doing on equal rights for women and religious tolerance?