President Barack Obama's speech at the United Nations General Assembly today deserves some fact checking. There were multiple assertions that skewed reality and are worth debunking as a result.
First, Obama questioned "whether the United Nations can meet the tests of our time," noting on Syria that "without a credible military threat, the Security Council had demonstrated no inclination to act at all." This is false.
The United States never approached the Security Council with any resolution regarding or requesting authorization for use of military force in Syria. Nothing like what the international community queued for Libya. The only resolutions offered by the U.S. in the lead-up to its military threat were sanctions-related resolutions regarding chemical weapons usage. The U.N. Security Council (notably Russia) moved more actively once one of its permanent five veto members, the U.S., decided to act unilaterally and outside of Security Council jurisdiction.
A more accurate depiction of what happened here, then, is that the Security Council was truly meeting the tests of our time, to course correct nation-state actors – from Syria to the United States – who were acting outside of international law.
Second, Obama lauded that "together, we have worked to end a decade of war." A more accurate depiction is that we've merely started another decade of war, while ending the last decade of war. Yes, to quote Obama, "all of our troops have left Iraq" and "next year, an international coalition will end its war in Afghanistan." But that does not mean the wars there have ended.
In fact, Iraq is as violent now as it was during the height of the U.S. invasion. The U.S. can be thanked for that, given our complete disregard for a political reconciliation and transitional justice plan in Baghdad. We just bombed and bailed.
Moreover, this next decade of war – in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya and possibly Syria – will last just as long and require just as much U.S. military and taxpayer money. While it may mean more drones and air strikes and fewer boots on the ground, the costs and casualties will be as great.
Third, Obama noted that "the world is more stable than it was five years ago." This is patently false. Having worked in many war-torn countries, from Pakistan and Afghanistan to Syria, the Philippines and more, these nations are more violent, not less. In Pakistan, for example, the people used to love America. Pro-America sentiment was in the majority. Not now. That has flipped thanks to the drone strikes. Moreover, my travel to Yemen this week was cancelled due to security concerns. You can thank our drone strikes for that insecurity as well.
Fourth, Obama asserted that the Syrian "regime used chemical weapons in an attack that killed more than 1,000 people." There are two factual inaccuracies here. First, no third party has yet asserted, through verifiable scientific evidence, that the Syrian regime did, in fact, use the chemical weapons. This is only an assertion promulgated by the U.S. Defense and State Departments.
It would behoove Obama to get third-party verification first before stating "fact." The U.N. would work well here or the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Let them do their job.
Second, no credible third party has verified that more than 1,000 people died on August 21. Doctors Without Borders noted more than 300. The French noted more than 500. Again, let the U.N. do its job and provide a mandate for uncovering responsibility.
Fifth, on Libya, Obama claimed that it "is far more likely that without international action, Libya would now be engulfed in civil war and bloodshed." This is a troubling misstatement because Libya is still engulfed in a civil war and bloodshed. The country is not better off post-invasion.
Given how much we funded fractious rebel groups and armed myriad opposition factions (which didn't get along then nor do they get along now), we've left Libya with more potential for blood and chaos than ever before. We're doing the same in Syria, given the similar fractiousness and violence perpetrated by myriad rebel groups there.
Sixth, Obama firmly noted that America "will not tolerate the development or use of weapons of mass destruction," that we "reject the development of nuclear weapons that could trigger a nuclear arms race," and that countries should meet their "responsibilities under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty." The problem with this statement is that America and its allies are continuously developing weapons of mass destruction and some of these very allies are not beholding to the NPT agenda, including Israel and India. If Obama is about accountability and oversight on this front, we've got a lot of work to do to obtain consistency here.
Seventh, on a more minor note, Obama claimed that there were "convulsions in the Middle East and North Africa." The use of "convulsions" to describe human suffering and struggle, while not factually incorrect, is a misinformed metaphor that reeks of patronizing paternalism. This is the wrong frame to offer to the U.N. General Assembly summit. Obama would've been better off brushing up his Cairo speech text instead. Convulsions moved no one in the audience. This was a speechwriter's faux pas.
To be fair, there were some promising statements and provocative questions by the U.S. president, asking, for example, "What is the role of force in resolving disputes?" and stating that "the use of chemical weapons has no place in the 21st century," that Obama does "not believe that military action – by those within Syria, or by external powers – can achieve a lasting peace," and that "the time is now ripe for the entire international community to get behind the pursuit of peace."
But these are good statements and questions only if they lead to alternate outcomes. But, unfortunately, Obama believes in using force to resolve disputes (see his foreign policy track record); he also believes in narratively repositioning the chemical weapons conversation within the 21st century (since the U.S. used them in the late 20th century, in the Iraq War and helped Saddam Hussein use them against the Kurds and against Iran). He stands ready and willing to use force to bring peace to Syria and has offered little help to the international community's effort to get behind the pursuit of peace.
In fact, Obama went further, saying that the U.S. is "prepared to use all elements of our power, including military force, to secure core interests in the region," which includes "the free flow of energy" and "imported oil." Obama was sounding an awful lot like George W. Bush here.
Worse, Obama excused our inconsistent foreign policy by saying that "the U.S. will at times work governments that do not meet the highest international expectations, but who work with us on our core interests," and intimated, secondly, that America stands ready, if not wary, to "impose democracy through military force." On the former, so much for America's moral high ground and setting the international standard. On the latter, this heralds a dangerous new precedent in U.S. foreign policy, that military threats bring us diplomatic breakthroughs.
What's most disappointing is that the president doesn't understand how to prevent violent conflict, even though he wants "a world where human beings can live with dignity and meet their basic human needs." If America was focused on that latter part – the bit about meeting basic human needs – we might actually witness less violence, have fewer enemies and win more hearts and minds. But that agenda is all about alleviating poverty, providing economic and educational opportunities, not something America has ever prioritized in places like Peshawar or Damascus. It is about time we started.
Michael Shank, Ph.D., is Director of Foreign Policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.
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