Barack Obama and Mitt Romney both delivered foreign policy speeches in New York today, Obama at the United Nations and Romney at the Clinton Global Initiative. The coincidence offers an opportunity for comparison. For now, let’s look at Obama’s speech, and I will try to get to Romney’s tomorrow.
The context for Obama’s speech was turmoil in the Arab world and the murder of Ambassador Stevens and other Americans in Benghazi. The speech wasn’t as bad as it might have been; for one thing, Obama offered, for the first time, a reasonably strong defense of free speech. On balance, I give it a C-.
Obama began with a tribute to Chris Stevens’s career, as was appropriate. But at the key moment, Obama characteristically slipped into the passive voice:
Two weeks ago, he travelled to Benghazi to review plans to establish a new cultural center and modernize a hospital. That’s when America’s compound came under attack. Along with three of his colleagues, Chris was killed in the city he helped to save.
The compound “came under attack.” By whom? At least this time, Obama acknowledged that it was an attack and not a demonstration. And Stevens “was killed.” Again, while Obama was not explicit, he seemed to be backing away from the smoke inhalation theory. But who killed Stevens, and how, and when? We are not likely to learn anything more about his fate until after the election.
The next passage is dishonest:
If we are serious about upholding these ideals, it will not be enough to put more guards in front of an Embassy; or to put out statements of regret, and wait for the outrage to pass. If we are serious about those ideals, we must speak honestly about the deeper causes of this crisis.
Why won’t it be enough to put more guards in front of an embassy? The embassy in Cairo was protected by Marine guards, and the mob didn’t sack it, although they did succeed in tearing down the stars and stripes and replacing it with al Qaeda’s flag. More guards could have prevented that. And the consulate in Benghazi apparently wasn’t guarded at all. It should have been. Here, Obama implicitly lets himself off the hook for the needless deaths of four Americans.
Obama expressed enthusiasm for the “Arab spring.” As he ticked off his administration’s actions with respect to each country, he highlighted, certainly unintentionally, the lack of any coherent policy:
We were inspired by the Tunisian protests that toppled a dictator, because we recognized our own beliefs in the aspirations of men and women who took to the streets.
We insisted on change in Egypt, because our support for democracy put us on the side of the people.
We supported a transition of leadership in Yemen, because the interests of the people were not being served by a corrupt status quo.
We intervened in Libya alongside a broad coalition, and with the mandate of the U.N. Security Council, because we had the ability to stop the slaughter of innocents; and because we believed that the aspirations of the people were more powerful than a tyrant.
And as we meet here, we again declare that the regime of Bashar al-Assad must come to an end so that the suffering of the Syrian people can stop, and a new dawn can begin.
With hindsight, maybe we shouldn’t have “insisted” on regime change in Egypt, or led from behind on Libya.
Obama’s discussion of the “deeper causes” of Muslim unrest included the inevitable denunciation of the YouTube video that ostensibly provoked the protests:
That is what we saw play out the last two weeks, as a crude and disgusting video sparked outrage throughout the Muslim world. I have made it clear that the United States government had nothing to do with this video, and I believe its message must be rejected by all who respect our common humanity. It is an insult not only to Muslims, but to America as well – for as the city outside these walls makes clear, we are a country that has welcomed people of every race and religion. We are home to Muslims who worship across our country. We not only respect the freedom of religion – we have laws that protect individuals from being harmed because of how they look or what they believe. We understand why people take offense to this video because millions of our citizens are among them.
This is profoundly hypocritical. Certainly the video puts Islam and Muhammad in a bad light, but no more so than countless movies, plays, books, etc. have portrayed Christianity and Judaism. Moreover, compared to much popular entertainment, it is neither crude nor disgusting. As just about everyone has pointed out, Hillary Clinton screamed with glee at “The Book of Mormon,” which is at least as disrespectful toward the Mormon church as the YouTube video is toward Islam, and considerably cruder. It is not the case that America rejects insults to religions; on the contrary, every one of its powerful cultural institutions encourages such insults. But I guess that is a little more truth than Obama thought his audience could handle.
Next, Obama went on to explain why he didn’t ban the video. (The same explanation would apply to “The Book of Mormon,” but apparently no one has suggested that he should ban that play.):
I know there are some who ask why we don’t just ban such a video. The answer is enshrined in our laws: our Constitution protects the right to practice free speech. Here in the United States, countless publications provoke offense. Like me, the majority of Americans are Christian, and yet we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs. Moreover, as President of our country, and Commander-in-Chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day, and I will always defend their right to do so. Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views – even views that we disagree with.
Yes, that’s right–Barack Obama and Jesus, they are both subject to so much unfair abuse!
We do so not because we support hateful speech, but because our Founders understood that without such protections, the capacity of each individual to express their own views, and practice their own faith, may be threatened. We do so because in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can become a tool to silence critics, or oppress minorities. We do so because given the power of faith in our lives, and the passion that religious differences can inflame, the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech – the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.
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 views 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. …
All true, although it assorts oddly with the administration’s hauling in the maker of the YouTube video for questioning. Obama went on to discourse on who must and must not control the future, culminating with this:
The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.
Really? There is a great deal to criticize in Islam, and in the life of the “prophet,” which was anything but exemplary. Peoples who now labor under the yoke of Islam will never make progress until such critiques are heard and acted upon. My own view is that the future very much belongs to those who “slander”–or criticize, anyway, which is the same thing–the “prophet of Islam.” Obama next tries to draw a parallel with other religions:
Yet to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see when the image of Jesus Christ is desecrated, churches are destroyed, or the Holocaust is denied.
This is, of course, a false parallel; slandering the prophet is by no means on a par with burning down churches and murdering their congregants, which is what happens in the Islamic world. And the problem with Holocaust denial is that it is not an academic debate, however disingenuous; rather, the danger is that those who deny the Holocaust, like, say, Ahmadinejad and his followers, yearn to repeat it. And whom is Obama kidding? Neither he nor anyone else has any intention of defending Christians and Jews against either symbolic or real assaults. For example, don’t hold your breath waiting for Obama to denounce Bill Maher’s (that would be million-dollar Bill) slurs against Christianity.
Among Israelis and Palestinians, the future must not belong to those who turn their backs on the prospect of peace. Let us leave behind those who thrive on conflict, and those who reject the right of Israel to exist.
The Israelis must wonder why Obama had to drag them into it. What do they have to do with the riots that roil various Muslim countries? Nothing. And if the Obama administration protected America’s embassies and consulates as competently as Netanyahu’s government protects Israel’s, Obama wouldn’t have to begin his speech with a tribute to a murdered ambassador.
Well, that’s enough. Obama concluded his speech with what amounted to a plea for his own re-election, which probably puzzled his listeners. Having walked through the speech once more, I think my grade may have been a bit generous. D+ is perhaps closer to the mark.