Old and busted: “Axis of evil.” New hotness: “Network of death.” Barack Obama got some good reviews for his speech yesterday at the UN, but more than a few curious looks at the rhetorical transformation of the President, too. Carrie Budoff Brown suggests that yesterday’s UN address is just one rinse cycle through a thesaurus away from a Bush byline:
President Barack Obama drafted most of Wednesday’s United Nations speech by himself, but it often sounded like he had a ghost writer: the predecessor he mocked.
Type Obama’s money phrase — the evocative description of the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant as a “network of death” — into thesaurus.com and George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” could very well come out, as many tweeters and former aides to the 43rd president noted. …
Obama didn’t just run against Bush’s foreign policy. He used to ridicule it. His rejection of the Bush worldview was so emphatic that it seemed to prompt the Nobel Peace Prize committee to give him the award just for getting elected.
So much for all that.
Sure, there are differences — Obama touted an international coalition for airstrikes that included five Arab nations, and it’s hard to imagine Bush inserting America’s racial divide and the failings connected to Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, into a foreign policy address as Obama did. But close your eyes and listen to Wednesday’s speech with a Texas accent, and you might feel like you’re having a flashback.
“That was only one echo of Bush” of many, Marc Thiessen, another former Bush speechwriter, said of the “network of death” line.
For example, Obama argued Wednesday: “There can be no reasoning — no negotiation — with this brand of evil.”
Bush, in an address to airline employees weeks after the 9/11 attack, declared: “We face a brand of evil, the likes of which we haven’t seen in a long time in the world.” And in a 2006 speech before Congress, Bush stated: “These radicals have declared their uncompromising hostility to freedom. It is foolish to think that you can negotiate with them.”
This speech did represent a sea change, I wrote for today’s column at The Fiscal Times, but only because of necessity. Only after everything fell apart and reality had smashed the fantasy spun by the White House about ISIS being “jayvees” did Obama finally begin to reverse course. In fact, necessity has been the rhetorical driver for Obama this week, reflecting the reluctance of his conversion:
With his speech at the UN, the transformation to a war President was seemingly complete. In place of the half-hearted and cautious rhetoric about humanitarian interventions and the need for a more humble approach, Obama defiantly challenged the world to join the US in the long fight against ISIS – and beyond that, Islamism in all of its violent manifestations. “There can be no reasoning – no negotiation – with this brand of evil,” Obama said of ISIS after reciting a list of atrocities still unfolding where they control ground. “The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force.”
After reciting the usual caveats about not being at war with Islam, complete with the now-familiar reminder that millions of Muslims call America their home, Obama demanded that nations of the General Assembly stop funding, nurturing, and protecting those espousing the Islamist ideology on which ISIS and al-Qaeda operates. “It is time for the world – especially Muslim communities – to explicitly, forcefully, and consistently reject the ideology of al Qaeda and ISIL,” Obama declared.
“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 is a direct, if unnamed, challenge to some of the same nations that the White House celebrated as members of their anti-ISIS coalition, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the latter of which funds and protects Hamas. …
Even so, the speech gave the clearest indicator that Obama has finally begun to awaken to the security threat that has re-emerged on his watch. “We are heirs to a proud legacy of freedom,” Obama concluded, “and we are prepared to do what is necessary [emphasis mine] to secure that legacy for generations to come.”
That echoed an Obama statement made the day before after the beginning of the Syrian campaign. “We are going to do what is necessary,” Obama declared, “to take the fight to this terrorist group.” In his UN speech, Obama insisted that US forces would not be sent “to occupy foreign lands,” but gone were the categorical refusal to consider other options.
At least for a moment on the global stage, Obama clearly defined the mission and pledged to do what has to be done to meet it. He then articulated that position without apology, and challenged the world to act alongside the US to accomplish it. Necessity, it seems, is the mother of leadership.
Ron Fournier was impressed, but not sure the transformation went far enough. Fournier also noticed hints of Bush in the speech:
It was perhaps the most thoughtful, grounded, and forward-looking speeches of Obama’s career. Not because he raised expectations with poetic phrasing – he’s been there, done that – but because he didn’t go there again. Instead, the president offered listeners a bracing, pragmatic roadmap to the future – a vision that, when moored to reality, was oddly optimistic.
The world has a choice, Obama said: work together to tackle the problems of a new age or be swamped by them. In the United States, “we choose hope over fear” – a line that could have been borrowed not only from Wilson, but from other presidents who presided in times of great inflection: Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and both presidents named Bush. …
Obama could have drawn a line to his own presidency and his own failings, and he could have questioned how he must evolve as a leader in his remaining months as president. Instead, the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner closed with a thinly veiled warning.
“And at this crossroads, I can promise you that the United States of America will not be distracted or deterred from what must be done. We are heirs to a proud legacy of freedom, and we are prepared to do what is necessary to secure that legacy for generations to come,” he said. With the words “whatever is necessary” still echoing in the ears of world leaders, from history’s lips to Obama’s, he concluded: “Join us in this common mission, for today’s children and tomorrow’s.”
Perhaps necessity will be the mother of a reinvention — of Obama from a dilettante on foreign policy to a responsible global leader. The Nobel committee will be unimpressed, but that reflects more on them than on the need to engage at this moment.