When President Obama spoke at the United Nations, he did his usual thing. He made some great points, he soared on the updrafts of his oratory, he distorted the U.S. role in the world, and after denouncing violence, he issued a veiled threat of war against Iran.
He spoke powerfully in defense of equality for women. “The future must not belong to those who bully women,” he said. “It must be shaped by girls who go to school, and those who stand for a world where our daughters can live their dreams just like our sons.”
And he gave an excellent defense of free speech. We “protect the right of all people to express their views, even views that we profoundly disagree with,” he said. “We do not do so 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.” He added: “The strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech."
That’s just plain old John Stuart Mill, and it’s always nice to hear.
Obama was right when he went on to say: “There is no speech that justifies mindless violence. There are no words that excuse the killing of innocents. There’s no video that justifies an attack on an embassy.”
He denounced what he called “the impulse towards intolerance and violence,” and he said, “It is time to leave the call of violence” behind.
But he should talk. He escalated the war in Afghanistan and has been responsible for “the killing of innocents” there with wayward attacks that have taken hundreds, if not thousands, of civilian lives.
And he essentially said he was prepared to renew “the call of violence” when it comes to Iran. “America wants to resolve this issue through diplomacy, and we believe that there is still time and space to do so,” he said. “But that time is not unlimited. . . . The United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
So violence and the killing of innocents are OK when the United States engages in them, but not when others do?
Earlier in his speech, Obama said the riots in the Middle East were “an assault on the very ideals upon which the United Nations was founded: the notion that people can resolve their differences peacefully, that diplomacy can take the place of war.”
But in his remarks about Iran, he acknowledged that he himself is prepared to assault those ideals and shelve diplomacy in favor of war at some point in the near future.
Two other comments by Obama troubled me.
One was his imitation of George W. Bush with the use of the expression “bringing them to justice.” Obama was referring to the killers of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in the Benghazi consulate. “We will be relentless in tracking down the killers and bringing them to justice,” Obama said. This is frontier justice that Obama is talking about, not the concept of justice enshrined in the American Constitution or jurisprudence.
The other was his equation of democracy with free enterprise. “True democracy demands that citizens cannot be thrown in jail because of what they believe, and that business can be opened without paying a bribe,” he said.
Now I’m not for bribery. But being able to open a business without paying a bribe does not have anything to do with democracy and is nowhere near on a par with freedom of conscience. You can have a dictatorship that outlaws bribery, after all.
Here, as he has elsewhere, Obama was trying to preside over the marriage of democracy and capitalism, but the two don’t naturally go well together, as we’ve been finding out so painfully in the United States and in Europe over the last several years.