In UN Speech, Obama Talks to Muslims but Carries a Big Stick

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Barack Obama raises his glass to toast during a luncheon hosted by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at UN headquarters, September 24, 2014.Credit: AP

President Barack Obama spoke to representatives of 193 countries at the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday, but his words were mostly addressed to listeners in the Arab and Muslim world.

Obama returned to many of the themes that featured in his famous Cairo speech five years ago, but with a starkly different tone and message.

This was no longer an inexperienced and possibly naïve president who sought to base “A New Beginning,” as the speech was called, on American apologetics, but a scarred and possibly disillusioned leader who now made demands and not just concessions.

This was the unique element of Obama’s comprehensive and forceful speech: his direct appeal to the Muslim world to eradicate the “cancer of violent extremism” that has “perverted one of the world’s great religions.” The United States may be leading an international attack on the Islamic State and Al-Qaida “network of evil,” but it was up to Muslim communities around the world to stamp out their hateful ideology. It is the violence within the Muslim world, Obama said bluntly, “that has become the source of so much human misery.”

It is doubtful whether any other American president could have made the same kind of assertive speech without eliciting howls of protests in the Muslim world, but Obama has earned the right to be heard: He extols his Muslim roots, he admires Muslim history and culture; he tried, but failed, to repair the rifts with the Muslim world; and some of his diehard detractors are still convinced that he is a secret Muslim himself.

In his Cairo speech, Obama pledged to withdraw American forces from the Middle East and to “leave Iraq to the Iraqis,” and he has since done his utmost not to get drawn in again. His hesitation, however, only diminished America’s stature and his own influence, while their resuscitation, ironically, is now taking place only after Obama has adopted some of the militaristic strategies that he so vigorously criticized before and convinced five Arab countries to follow in his path.

Obama did not adhere hitherto to the “talk softly and carry a big stick” advice offered by Teddy Roosevelt, back in the limelight in recent weeks by virtue of the sterling PBS television series devoted to him and his distant cousin Franklin.

Obama always knew how to talk, not necessarily softly, but this time he came to the General Assembly armed not only with a bludgeon but with a few notable scalps on his belt as well: Just before the speech, a U.S. official said that U.S. bombings in western Syria had apparently killed Mohsin al-Fadhli, a senior figure of the Al-Qaida-linked Khorasan group that was reportedly planning a major terror attack. A few hours earlier, the Al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front announced that one of its own leaders, Abu Yousef al-Turki, known as "The Turk," had also been eliminated.

Obama came to the United Nations after having ordered the attacks but before their potential ramifications materialized, including the possibility of a retaliatory terror attack that is already putting Americans on edge. Obama appeared on the world stage as a leader who scolds Russia, leads an international campaign against Ebola and manages a special Security Council summit which is implementing tough new measures against foreign terrorist fighters.

The need to democratize the Arab world no longer featured in his speech, as it did so prominently in Cairo, though Obama did speak of democracy in the context of the Ferguson riots that followed the killing of an African American by a local policeman. We have our problems like other nations, Obama said, but we deal with ours through democracy, not violent extremism.

Obama devoted only a few sentences to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, far less than in Cairo when he listed it as a crucial element in creating tensions between America and the Muslim world. “The situation in Iraq, Syria and Libya should cure anyone of the illusion that this conflict is the main source of the problems in the region,” Obama said this time, much to the relief of many Israelis and their supporters who have been making the same point for years.

In a last-minute addition to the prepared text, however, Obama, also called on Israelis to “reflect” on the fact that “too many Israelis are ready to abandon the hard work of peace.” The chances of that happening are slim, at best, when Prime Minister Netanyahu comes calling next week. But they are probably no better than the prospects that the Muslim world will heal itself, as Obama asks. 

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