Barack Obama’s speech at the UN started in a drizzle of hoary clichés, but then got down to specifics in relatively short order. Obama delivered a lengthy rebuke to Russia at the General Assembly for its actions in Ukraine, accusing Vladimir Putin of a “might makes right” policy in the annexation of Crimea, and blamed Russia for “thousands” of deaths from their intervention in the Donbass. He delivered an even longer exhortation for action against violent extremism in the Middle East, urging nations to combat the scourge of both al-Qaeda and ISIS:
It’s a lengthy speech, but there are a few highlights to recognize. Obama accused Russia of being a bully, and a reversal in the progress of international relations:
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.
Moreover, a different path is available – the path of diplomacy and peace and the ideals this institution is designed to uphold. The recent cease-fire agreement in Ukraine offers an opening to achieve that objective. If Russia takes that path – a path that for stretches of the post-Cold War period resulted in prosperity for the Russian people – then we will lift our sanctions and welcome Russia’s role in addressing common challenges. That’s what the United States and Russia have been able to do in past years – from reducing our nuclear stockpiles to meet our obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to cooperating to remove and destroy Syria’s declared chemical weapons. And that’s the kind of cooperation we are prepared to pursue again—if Russia changes course.
This speaks to a central question of our global age: whether we will solve our problems together, in a spirit of mutual interests and mutual respect, or whether we descend into destructive rivalries of the past.
In contrast, Obama declared that there is no negotiating with evil such as ISIS (ISIL in his speech). While insisting that the US would not send troops to “occupy foreign lands,” Obama challenged the General Assembly to join the US in delivering the only message that ISIS will understand — force:
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.
Obama also scolded nations that allow radical Islamists to propagandize, recruit, and fund groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda, and specifically called out “Muslim communities” to do so:
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. …
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.”
Interestingly — and tellingly — Obama only devoted two paragraphs to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That’s a sea change for Obama over the last five-plus years, when his administration focused on that conflict as the undergirding cause of regional terrorism. Obama seems to have learned the lesson Tony Blair attempted to teach last week, which is that the actual cause is Islamism, and it’s spreading.
Obama also made the odd choice of invoking Ferguson as an example that America has its ethnic problems, too:
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.
Well, okay, but this is more than a bit tone deaf when it comes to scale. Ferguson involves a potential abuse-of-power incident in an area where the relationship between police and the citizens they serve has been problematic. ISIS is committing ethnic cleansing and genocide in a vacuum of legitimate authority, and the Islamists in other areas are contemplating or taking the same actions (such as Boko Haram in Nigeria). The rule of law as an antidote makes the comparison ridiculous, and totally inapt. It’s almost as if Obama went looking for any example of American strife he could find to produce a rhetorical balance where it clearly does not exist.
Otherwise, the speech was tougher than one might have expected, and certainly more challenging than most of Obama’s missives abroad. The General Assembly is not likely to be moved by it, but that reflects on the GA rather than the speech.