A lot of the attention regarding Obama’s speech at the UN will focus on his efforts to reach out to the Iranian leadership in hopes of finding a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue. However, I think the most important thing that he said today was when he described what the US objective is when it comes to global affairs.
Here’s him laying out line by line his Middle East policy:
“The United States of America is prepared to use all elements of our power, including military force, to secure our core interests in the region. We will confront external aggression against our allies and partners, as we did in the Gulf War.
We will ensure the free flow of energy from the region to the world. Although America is steadily reducing our own dependence on imported oil, the world still depends on the region’s energy supply and a severe disruption could destabilize the entire global economy.
We will dismantle terrorist networks that threaten our people. Wherever possible, we will build the capacity of our partners, respect the sovereignty of nations, and work to address the root causes of terror. But when it’s necessary, defend the United States against terrorist attack, we will take direct action.
And finally, we will not tolerate the development or use of weapons of mass destruction. Just as we consider the use of chemical weapons in Syria to be a threat to our own national security, we reject the development of nuclear weapons that could trigger a nuclear arms race in the region and undermine the global nonproliferation regime.”
The best way to explain any type of policy is to be succinct and consistent. In his speech President Obama highlighted one simple policy goal that the US wants to achieve and how it plans to achieve them. He unequivocally said that the United States of America is fully willing and able to engage in military force to protect its interests in the Middle East. Nothing is off the table when it comes to protecting the flow of petroleum, getting attack terrorists via drone strikes, and enforcing the ban on weapons of mass destruction.
Contrast that with his almost conciliatory tone that he struck with regards to Iran. He acknowledged the US role in overthrowing the democratically elected Iran government in the 1950s and while he did not publicly apologize, he did imply that there was some legitimacy to the Iranian feelings towards the US.
Combine the two seemingly incongruent aspects of his speech and what you see is a President trying to reach out to American’s adversaries while at the same time reminding them that the US reserves the right to use force if necessary. Of course, this is what American presidents have been saying for decades. But what’s notable about this is that the message has changed from “We don’t want to bomb you, but we will if we have to” to “You have some legitimate grievances against us, but we’re still going to bomb you if don’t cut this out.” The latter leaves much more room for engagement on the Iranian’s terms. And while I don’t see this being productive in the short term, it may be the only thing that works in the long term.