Obama agonising on America's global role, continued

US President Barack Obama addresses the 68th United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York, 24 September 2013 A speech full of headlines, yet uncertainty ruled

President Barack Obama's speech to the United Nations was in some ways a distillation of his policy swerves of the last month, a continuation of his public agonising about America's role in the world.

And that is not necessarily a bad thing.

It won't be what is most talked about, for there were enough headlines:

  • His demand for a "strong" UN resolution with "consequences" if Syria fails to act on chemical weapons
  • His urging that Iran and Russia should abandon Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
  • Putting the Middle East peace process on equal footing with Iran's nuclear programme in the list of US diplomatic concerns
  • His warm words of hope towards Iran, and the possibility of a negotiated solution to the crises that have loomed over the world

There is a lot of red meat to be chewed over in that little lot.

Multiple-choice speech

But he also asked the question that frequently lies behind the use of American, and Western, military might, but goes beyond the question of national interest.

On the one hand there was the choice of "standing callously by" as children are gassed. On the other, "embroiling ourselves in someone else's civil war".

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Treating people like grown-ups is not always good politics”

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He asked if the world would allow another Srebrenica or Rwanda, or stand by and allow the "cold logic of mass graves".

He asked if Libya would be better off with Gaddafi still in charge, mired in dreadful civil war.

Rhetorical flourishes, you might think.

He argued that there was no such thing as an American Empire, but that the country was exceptional, acting not just in its own interests, but those of others.

He said the danger for the world was not a US too eager to engage, but one that might disengage and leave a vacuum of leadership.

But he provided no fast rule, no easy measure for the hard decision of when to use its muscle. And he has not really answered his own question on Syria.

It is easy to mock his multiple-choice speech. Treating people like grown-ups is not always good politics.

But he is urging Americans, and the rest of the world to answer the question, when to intervene and when to leave well alone, and to think what that choice implies.

It is an odd, conflicted style of leadership: a philosopher king in a world that doesn't like, but at least understands, the cowboy who shoots from the hip.

"We live in a world of imperfect choices," Mr Obama said.

That line seems more like a conclusion than a passing phrase on the way to greater certainty.

Mark Mardell Article written by Mark Mardell Mark Mardell Presenter, The World This Weekend

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  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    President Obama is criticized for thinking too much about the role of the US in the world! Perhaps Mardell prefers the shoot-from-the hip style of Bush II? The fact is that Obama takes the lives of US civilians and troops seriously and is taking into account complex postcolonial contexts that were ignored by the previous administration to the great cost of Americans and Iraqis....

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    Fighting terrorists is a no win situation for civilians caught in crossfire
    Shopping zone in Nairobi became war zone due to Kenyan Army Ops

    [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    Wars are contrived they don't just happen out of the blue. USA wanted a foothold in ME since Iraq I and is to blame for the reaction to their actions

    Obama's foreign policies have been due to the legacy of Iraq II and Afghanistan handed over from GWB. Arab Springs in Egypt Libya Syria Tunisia and violence spreading in Africa to Mali Niger Yemen Kenya now have extremists bedding in and taking over

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    M: Maybe the Nobel people were right after all in giving him their top award

    Interesting you say this as you yourself were against USA and our allies getting involved in Syria war
    Obama wanted to bomb Syria and the only reason why he didn't was b/c he had no support home or abroad except for France

    Obama is a farce, a person who is a better actor than politician

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    Marg: That is wiser than you give him credit for

    Its hard to give credit to someone who is against you and who wants to ruin your country

    M: Maybe the Nobel people were right after all in giving him their top award

    Well they were definitely wrong in the first place to give it him,
    let me check again...

    Nope, they were still wrong to give it to him


Comments 5 of 84


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