Barack Obama’s farewell address to the United Nations General Assembly Tuesday was starkly anti-Israeli, or at least the antithesis of the current Israeli zeitgeist. Not because of his praise for the Iran nuclear deal or his token words of condemnation of settlements and occupation, but in the deeper layers of his speech; in his shameless promotion of universal values, in the presentation of his vision as the presumptive leader of the free world, with emphasis on the word “free.”
It was an optimistic and hopeful speech that dwelled on the cup half-full, which Israeli politicians prefer to portray as 90 per cent empty. Obama extolled diplomacy (how naive,) called for increased international collaboration (with BDS-supporting anti-Semites,) praised the recent accord on climate change (a self-indulgent luxury,) promoted immigration (of Muslims, of course) and preached acceptance of, and respect for, the other (give us a break).
Obama said that deep religious convictions should not sanctify discrimination against women or prevent children from learning mathematics and science, (as they do throughout Israel’s independent ultra-Orthodox school system.) When he spoke about authoritarian leaders who foster division and understand only force, our analysts told us, without batting an eyelid, that he meant Vladimir Putin. And when Obama coined the sentence for which the speech will be remembered, “A nation ringed by walls will only imprison itself”, the commentators said, without a hint of self-irony, that he was talking about Donald Trump.
Obama did not let terror dominate his speech. He didn’t ignore ISIS or the radicalization of its fans in the West, but he didn’t suborn his worldview to a makeshift pressure cooker bomb that went off in midtown Manhattan and he didn’t dwell too much on a multiple stabber in far away Minnesota. Unlike the constant and breathless media coverage of terror in both Israel and the U.S., Obama didn’t allow these events to overshadow his belief that the world is healthier, more educated, more prosperous and more democratic than ever before.
He is leaving that task to Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom he meets on Wednesday, who has already revealed that he will devote his speech to the War on Terror, his main ideological squeeze and Israel’s contemporary Light Unto the Nations.
It was another brilliant speech by a gifted orator whose rhetorical gifts are acknowledged even by his critics, though they tend to add sarcastically that he’s “good with words.” Obama’s address was restrained, rational, even academic, worthy of a president who detests rabble-rousing and was once known as “no-drama Obama.” Nonetheless, although he criticized glorification of a past that never was, in both Russia and the U.S., Obama’s speech was intensely American, and, in its way, anachronistic.
He sounded at times like a blast from the smiling and hopeful 1950s, an extinct kind of politician who peddles optimism and old-fashioned values and who has been catapulted into an unsettled and dystopian future. He declared himself an adherent of his own brand of American exceptionalism, expressed confidence in the triumph of good over evil, defended progress, praised democracy and promoted liberty and justice for all.
Obama didn’t abandon his support for globalization and free trade, which Trump and Bernie Sanders depict as enemies of the human race, but called for a kinder, gentler version of unbridled capitalism, one that closes income gaps, respects the working man and honors his need to organize (told you he was a socialist!). He was hard on Russia, a bit softer on China and derisive of states that force beliefs and religions on their citizens while fostering division between dominant ethnic groups and minorities (he meant the Arabs, no?)
From start to finish, it was evident that Obama sought to construct an alternative world view to what he harshly described as “aggressive nationalism; a crude populism – sometimes from the far left, but more often from the far right – which seeks to restore what they believe was a better, simpler age free of outside contamination.” In his eyes, this is the essence of Trump, who he views as the greatest danger to his vision and to his legacy and whom he has committed to fight, according to reports in the American media Tuesday, in the weeks that remain until the elections.
Obama realizes of course that the achievements he touted are worthless in the eyes of his haters. He won’t be fazed by the criticism his speech will receive. His rivals will view his vision as naiveté divorced from reality, at best, or as catastrophic and willful blindness, at worst.
Like most politicians, Obama did not dwell on his failings and shortcomings, though he didn’t ignore them completely either. He knows that “our societies are filled with uncertainty, and unease, and strife” and that he might be judged by “a much darker and more cynical view of history.” When he said that sentence, I could swear he was looking directly at us.
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