(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
President Obama broke no new ground in his United Nations speech today, a speech devoted almost entirely to problems in and around the Middle East: Syria, Iran, the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Arab Spring and Egypt, terrorism, and US intervention policy. Repeatedly, however, Obama seemed intent on justifying US military inteventionism in world conflicts.
That he broke no new ground is not an encouraging development. He asked a lot of rhetorical questions:
The crisis in Syria and the destabilization of the region goes to the heart of broader challenges that the international community must now confront. How should we respond to conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa? Conflicts between countries, but also conflicts within them. How do we address the choice of standing callously by while children are subjected to nerve gas, but we’re embroiling ourselves in someone else’s civil war?
What’s the role of force in resolving disputes that threaten the stability of the region and undermine all basic standards of civilized conduct? And what’s the role of the United Nations and international law in meeting cries for justice?
But his answers, framed against his attempts at justifying his own recent decision to bomb Syria, were less than satisfactory. Seeming to defer repeatedly to the liberal-interventionist views of his new UN ambassador, Samantha Power, Obama appeared to be looking for reasons to justify US interventionism abroad, especially the very controversial Responsibility to Protect doctrine and the idea that every mass slaughter or set of civilian deaths borders on the sort of Rwanda-style genocide that might justify American military action.
It’s true—and we can applaud this fact—that Obama spoke out in favor of diplomacy on issues such as Syria, Iran and Palestine. That, of course, is what the United Nations is for.
Still, he issued stark endorsements of interventionism, in passages such as this one:
But [national] sovereignty cannot be a shield for tyrants to commit one murder. Or an excuse for the international community to turn a blind eye. While we need to be modest in our belief that we can remedy every evil, while we need to be mindful that the world is full of unintended consequences, should we really accept the notion that the world is powerless in the face of a Rwanda, or Srebrenica?
If that’s the world that people want to live in, they should say so, and reckon with the cold logic of mass graves.
Or this one, justifying U.S. and NATO bombing of Libya in 2011:
But does anyone truly believe that the situation in Libya would be better, if Gadhafi had been allowed to kill, imprison or brutalize his people into submission?
Or, especially, this one:
There will be times when the breakdown of societies is so great, the violence against civilians so substantial, that the international community will be called upon to act. This will require new thinking and some very tough choices. While the United Nations was designed to prevent wars between states, increasingly we face the challenge of preventing slaughter within states.
And these challenges will grow more pronounced as we are confronted with states that are fragile or failing, places where horrendous violence can put innocent men, women and children at risk with no hope of protection from their national institutions. I’ve made it clear that even when America’s core interests are not directly threatened, we stand ready to do our part to prevent mass atrocities and protect basic human rights.
And, in case you’d forgotten the tangle of issues in the Middle East centers on the oil industry, there was this rather honest statement from President Obama:
The United States of America is prepared to use all elements of our power, including military force, to secure our core interests in the region. We will confront external aggression against our allies and partners, as we did in the Gulf War.
We will ensure the free flow of energy from the region to the world. Although America is steadily reducing our own dependence on imported oil, the world still depends on the region’s energy supply and a severe disruption could destabilize the entire global economy.
So, there you have it. We’ll work with other countries to resolve conflicts if we can. But, “we will ensure the free flow of energy from the region” and we are “prepared to use all elements of our power, including military force, to secure our core interests.” Bingo.