“I am not naïve,” President Obama insisted yesterday, as he delivered his first speech to the United Nations General Assembly. And, indeed, some components of his remarks – including his call for sterner action to halt Iran and North Korea’s nuclear programs – were reasonable enough. But nothing more corroded the seriousness of the president’s appeal for a new era of global security and cooperation than the fact that it was addressed to a body that, whatever the high-minded principles of its founding, has long been an obstacle to both.
It is an insight into the animating convictions of the modern UN that one of the more applauded parts of the president’s speech was a backhanded condemnation of his predecessor. Obama announced that his administration had rejected the supposed unilateralism of the Bush era in favor of a new “engagement.” In a disparaging reference to the Bush administration’s decision to withhold some payments to the UN, Obama boasted, “We have paid our bills.”
The boast was hardly warranted. Contrary to Obama’s implication – and much to the dismay of the UN’s critics – the United States has been the largest financial contributor to the UN since its 1945 founding. It is true that the Bush administration canceled aid for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFP), but it did so to protest the UNFP’s support for population control programs, most notably China’s program of forced abortions. Precisely why restoring U.S. funding for such controversial initiatives should be considered a sign of progress, Obama never made clear.
Obama’s rebuff of unilateralism was similarly misplaced. After all, the Bush administration’s most “unilateral” decision – the 2003 invasion of Iraq – was in fact anything but, coming as it did after the United Nations failed to enforce 17 resolutions that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had violated. Bush’s real sin, in this sense, was to make it all too plain just how ineffectual the world’s premier human rights body really was.
In fairness, Obama seemed to grasp this critique of the UN. He made a point of stressing that rogue states like Iran and North Korea “must be held accountable,” urging the world to “stand together to demonstrate that international law is not an empty promise.” Yet Obama missed an opportunity to emphasize that his promise of accountability was more than empty rhetoric. Instead, he fell back on the familiar chestnut that he is “committed to diplomacy.” An impassive Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, sitting in the fifth row, was visibly unimpressed.
And no wonder. Since 2006, the U.N. Security Council has three times imposed sanctions on Iran for its failure to freeze uranium enrichment. How has that worked out? According to the UN’s own International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran now has the knowhow to “design and produce a workable” nuclear weapon made up of enriched uranium. It’s still possible, as some experts counsel, that a new round of stiffer sanctions could stall Iran’s drive toward nuclear capability, but the recent record underscores one point: Diplomacy isn’t getting it done.
That’s particularly the case when the diplomacy is carried out by an organization whose commitment to international peace leaves so much to be desired. One need look no further than the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Less despicable than its predecessor, the singularly sinister UN Human Rights Commission, which counted such human rights beacons as Libya and Sudan in its ranks (Libya, notoriously, even chaired the commission in 2003), the UNHRC can be considered an improvement only by the UN’s dismal standards. Saudi Arabia and Cuba are still members, and the agency has retained its tradition of singling out Israel for false and inflammatory censure bordering on anti-Semitism. All the more bizarre, then, that Obama used his UN speech to announce that the United States, as part of his re-engagement strategy, was joining the UNHRC.
Such illogical pronouncements had the effect of muddling Obama’s more sober-minded observations. Although the president was unbecomingly partisan and needlessly apologetic about America’s role in the world – a pronounced tendency in his speeches at home and abroad – he did not spare the UN from criticism. He denounced the “almost reflexive anti-Americanism which, too often, has served as an excuse for collective inaction,” an apt enough description of the UN’s perennial failures. Elsewhere, he chided that “it is easy to walk up to this podium and point fingers and stoke divisions,” pointing out that, “Anybody can do that.”
On the last point, unfortunately, the president was all too correct. Thus, Obama was followed at the podium by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Libya’s Moammar Qadaffi. Ahmadinejad, having recently reaffirmed his denial of the Holocaust, proceeded to launch a routine diatribe against Israel. Qadaffi, for his part, took the occasion to offer a characteristically lunatic rant whose highlights included a demand that George Bush and Tony Blair be put on trial for the Iraq war and an assurance that swine flu was a biological weapon created in a military lab. All that was left was to conjecture about JFK’s true killer, and Qaddafi obliged. When he ripped up a copy of the UN charter at the podium, it was almost gratuitous: The mere fact that someone like Qadaffi could be invited to address the UN was a measure of how far it had fallen from its ideal.
Obama successfully avoided an embarrassing photo op with Qadaffi, but his enthusiastic support for an organization that welcomes the likes of the Libyan dictator nonetheless spoke volumes. Never mind that the UN has repeatedly failed to prevent human rights abuses. Never mind that it has empowered regimes that kill, torture, and oppress their populations with impunity. Despite this history, Obama still seems to believe that the UN remains a force for good in the world. There’s a word to describe people who hold such astoundingly credulous beliefs. And the president is not going to like it.