Why Obama Matters

This is the man who allegedly apologizes for America:

We believe that freedom and self-determination are not unique to one culture. These are not simply American values or Western values – they are universal values. And even as there will be huge challenges that come with a transition to democracy, I am convinced that ultimately government of the people, by the people and for the people is more likely to bring about the stability, prosperity, and individual opportunity that serve as a basis for peace in our world.

What the misguided right has turned into an ugly supremacist nationalism, Obama describes as the Founders did. The city on the hill is blessed because it has a government of the people, by the people and for the people. It is strong because of its commitment to justice and equality and liberty at home (however many failures and sins and crimes there have been on the way), not because it has the biggest military in the world and likes to use it. America is a great country because of its ideals, enshrined in its constitution, which the Founders insisted were universal. And that includes freedom of speech. It is our First Amendment.

The conservative in me pushes against this as a guide to practical action – because such freedom is a complex, fragile, social and cultural achievement (as David Brooks notes today), not an abstract idea that can be forced onto a society unready for its responsibilities and opportunities. But Obama's Toryism shines through:

I know that not all countries in this body share this understanding of the protection of free speech. Yet in 2012, at a time when anyone with a cell phone can spread offensive 152754019views around the world with the click of a button, the notion that we can control the flow of information is obsolete. The question, then, is how we respond. And on this we must agree: there is no speech that justifies mindless violence.

There are no words that excuse the killing of innocents. There is no video that justifies an attack on an Embassy. There is no slander that provides an excuse for people to burn a restaurant in Lebanon, or destroy a school in Tunis, or cause death and destruction in Pakistan.

More broadly, the events of the last two weeks speak to the need for all of us to address honestly the tensions between the West and an Arab World moving to democracy. Just as we cannot solve every problem in the world, the United States has not, and will not, seek to dictate the outcome of democratic transitions abroad, and we do not expect other nations to agree with us on every issue. Nor do we assume that the violence of the past weeks, or the hateful speech by some individuals, represents the views of the overwhelming majority of Muslims– any more than the views of the people who produced this video represent those of Americans.

However, I do believe that it is the obligation of all leaders, in all countries, to speak out forcefully against violence and extremism. It is time to marginalize those who – even when not resorting to violence – use hatred of America, or the West, or Israel as a central principle of politics. For that only gives cover, and sometimes makes excuses, for those who resort to violence.

And as in the world, so in America:

A politics based only on anger – one based on dividing the world between us and them – not only sets back international cooperation, it ultimately undermines those who tolerate it. All of us have an interest in standing up to these forces. Let us remember that Muslims have suffered the most at the hands of extremism. On the same day our civilians were killed in Benghazi, a Turkish police officer was murdered in Istanbul only days before his wedding; more than ten Yemenis were killed in a car bomb in Sana’a; and several Afghan children were mourned by their parents just days after they were killed by a suicide bomber in Kabul.

The moments in the speech that identified with the democratic forces in the Middle East, that included them in the victims of Jihadist violence, were the ones that affected me the most – and have the most power. The most incoherent part of the speech was on Iran:

We respect the right of nations to access peaceful nuclear power, but one of the purposes of the United Nations is to see that we harness that power for peace. Make no mistake: a nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained. It would threaten the elimination of Israel, the security of Gulf nations, and the stability of the global economy. It risks triggering a nuclear-arms race in the region, and the unraveling of the non-proliferation treaty.

There is no reference here to the nuclear arsenal of Israel which, if matched by a regional rival, immediately offers the kind of mutually assured destruction that kept the world peaceful during a far more dangerous period, especially for the US. If Israel's nukes were dismantled as a condition for full and open inspection of Iran's key nuclear plants, the US would have a teensy bit of credibility. But Obama is claiming that a lone nuclear power in the Middle East is destabilizing the whole place. No shit. But there is only one nuclear power in the Middle East and it, unlike Iran's disgusting dictatorship, has launched several pre-emptive wars on its neighbors near and far. To see what is in front of one's nose is a constant struggle.

The globalization of which the American president speaks is as fast as it is furious. But it also means that certain assumptions – that of course Israel, but no other country in the region, can have nuclear weapons, but POTUS is not allowed even to mention Israel's nukes in public – are becoming unsustainable. Obama knows this; many Israelis know this; but so far, they are cannily leading from behind.

(Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama collects his thoughts before his address at the UN General Assembly on September 25, 2012 in New York City. By John Moore/Getty Images)