In the UN speech earlier today, President Obama once again succumbed to what has become almost a clinical addiction: criticizing the United States in front of an international audience.
In the latest stop on his American Apology Tour, Obama aimed his fire at America on the issue of global warming (“the days when America dragged its feet on this issue are over”) and democracy (“in the past America has too often been selective in its promotion of democracy”). And Obama, after humbly declaring at the outset of his speech that “I am well aware of the expectations that accompany my presidency around the world . . . they are also rooted in hope—the hope that real change is possible, and the hope that America will be a leader in bringing about such change,” went on to say this:
I took office at a time when many around the world had come to view America with skepticism and distrust. Part of this was due to misperceptions and misinformation about my country. Part of this was due to opposition to specific policies, and a belief that on certain critical issues, America has acted unilaterally, without regard for the interests of others. This has fed an almost reflexive anti-Americanism, which too often has served as an excuse for our collective inaction.
Where oh where to begin? How about by pointing out that America did not act unilaterally in Iraq or anywhere else during the Bush presidency. For example, and for the record, more than 35 countries gave crucial support—from the use of naval and air bases to help with intelligence and logistics to the deployment of combat units. President Bush answered the “unilateral” charge in his 2004 State of the Union address:
Some critics have said our duties in Iraq must be internationalized. This particular criticism is hard to explain to our partners in Britain, Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Italy, Spain, Poland, Denmark, Hungary, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Romania, the Netherlands, Norway, El Salvador, and the 17 other countries that have committed troops to Iraq. As we debate at home, we must never ignore the vital contributions of our international partners, or dismiss their sacrifices.
Second, the United States actually did have in mind the interests of others—beginning with 25 million Iraqis—when it acted. The Iraq war, whatever you think about its wisdom and execution, was in part a war of liberation, undertaken for noble purposes: to liberate a captive people and to depose an aggressive dictator. We know about the Iraqi regime under Saddam Hussein; it was one of the most brutal and malevolent in modern history. The fact that we believed the Iraq war advanced America’s national interests doesn’t mean it was a war waged without regard for the interests of others. And for Obama to allow this misperception of America to go unchallenged—indeed, to give such a false and malicious charge legitimacy—is disturbing.
Third, in his speech the President said, “I pledge that America will always stand with those who stand up for their dignity and their rights.” Oh really? If so, then why was he so reluctant to speak out for the brave Iranians who rose up against the brutal rule of President Ahmadinejad? Because of his fear not to offend the Iranian regime, he essentially put America on its side rather than on the side of the Iranians who stood up for their dignity and rights. In addition, Obama and his secretary of state are purposefully downplaying human rights in their dealings with China—including refusing to meet with the Dalai Lama. It is no secret that Obama—in an effort to distance himself from his predecessor—has very few words, and none memorable, to say on behalf of basic human rights. He will from time to time mouth empty slogans so he can check off the “human-rights box,” but he does not give any evidence that he feels these values deep in his bones.
There is more to be said about the Obama speech—including the president’s tiresome pretense that he and he alone will lead the world out of its cul-de-sac, where “we bicker about outdated grievances.” But I cannot escape a depressing thought, one I hope is proved to be wrong over time: that Barack Obama, even though he is the leader of America, is constantly placing himself above it. His criticisms of our country are now part of a troubling routine, so much so that Obama is now winning the applause of people who genuinely hate America (like Fidel Castro, who complimented Obama for his “brave gesture” and “courage” in criticizing the United States at the UN).
Obama not only fails to strongly defend the United States; he is actually adding brush strokes to a portrait of our country that diminishes its achievements and standing. He seems unable or unwilling to speak out—in a heartfelt and passionate way—on its behalf. He is, of course, too clever not to ever say a word of praise for America; no, this sophisticated wordsmith and smooth politician, this cool customer ever in search of The Golden Mean, can speak in both text and subtext. He says just enough to deny the charge that he is not a strong defender of the country he leads. But by now we’re on to the game.
No one believes America’s history is pristine; we are all familiar with the catalogue of our own sins, beginning with slavery. Other presidents have recognized them, and a few have given voice to them. But it was done in the context of a reverence for America—for what it has been and stands for, for what it is and can be. Think of the words of George Washington, who said of America, “I was summoned by my Country, whose voice I can never hear but with veneration and love.” That is a noble sentiment from a man whose love of country knew no bounds. They are also words that I cannot imagine President Obama saying, at least with conviction. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t like his country or admire things about it; it means that he has yet to really speak out for it. And it means that he has shown, so far at least, that he is more interested in advancing his interests than in speaking on behalf of the nation that elected him. There are enough critics of America in the world; we don’t need to add America’s president to that list.
Perhaps Mr. Obama will come to understand that there is a problem when the president of the United States—an “inestimable jewel,” Lincoln called her—has harsher things to say about his own country than he does about many of the worst regimes on Earth.
It is all quite disturbing, and to have to say this about an American president almost makes me sick.