Sunday, September 27, 2009

Obama's gen assembly speech and its reception

Hal Pepinsky,
September 27, 2009

I grew up thinking that formal diplomatic dialogue (and lack thereof) was the most fundamental difference between war and peace. Later in life, I became more cynical. Over the past four US presidencies, I have come to presume that if the White House feels a need to say anything, it is because it is NOT true. Sigh…
I was excited by the intensity of White House promotion of President Obama’s September 23 first-ever-by-a-USprez lead address to this year’s New York opening of the UN General Assembly. As luck would have it, I was leaving Ft. Lauderdale from guest speaker, on “violence and peacemaking,” on September 21, International Peace Day, at Nova Southeastern U. My personal host was George Kakoti, a criminal justice prof, a British-trained Tanzanian barrister whom I hooded when he received his Ph.D. in the interdiscipline we share. Mr. Obama began his address as George drove me to the airport to return home.
It took me awhile to get the speech on the web that night. It wasn’t easy to find a simple text, until I hit on the idea of going directly to the UN General Assembly, and searching by date, which offers video too. This is the most direct way to open the text of any one of the many national addresses September 23 through yesterday. Check it out.
I was blown away by the speech from this early passage on:
In an era when our destiny is shared, power is no longer a zero sum game. No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation. No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed. No balance of power among nations will hold. The traditional
division between nations of the south and north makes no sense in an interconnected
world. Nor do alignments of nations rooted in the cleavages of a long gone Cold War.
The time has come to realize that the old habits and arguments are irrelevant to the
challenges faced by our people. They lead nations to act in opposition to the very goals
that they claim to pursue, and to vote – often in this body – against the interests of their
own people. They build up walls between us and the future that our people seek, and the
time has come for those walls to come down. Together, we must build new coalitions that
bridge old divides – coalitions of different faiths and creeds; of north and south, east and
west; black, white, and brown.
The choice is ours. We can be remembered as a generation that chose to drag the
arguments of the 20th century into the 21st; that put off hard choices, refused to look
ahead, and failed to keep pace because we defined ourselves by what we were against
instead of what we were for. Or, we can be a generation that chooses to see the shoreline
beyond the rough waters ahead; that comes together to serve the common interests of
human beings, and finally gives meaning to the promise embedded in the name given to
this institution: the United Nations.
That is the future America wants – a future of peace and prosperity that we can only
reach if we recognize that all nations have rights, but all nations have responsibilities as
well. That is the bargain that makes this work. That must be the guiding principle of
international cooperation.

To me Obama is making a breathtaking, and I believe deeply personally sincere, offer of radical shift in US diplomatic posture. I couldn’t wait to see and hear worldwide reaction, let alone what I would hear as reaction on National Public Radio the next morning. Meanwhile, I googled for reaction to the speech, and I found no favor, only domestic vitriol about Obama’s weakness. Eagerly I awaited reports on NPR and the BBC the next morning.

All the reporting of the speech was of how in a single line in the speech Obama had called for firmness about Iran’s nuclear activity. Ironic, isn’t it? In the passage quoted above, Obama exhorts us to avoid as the generation who “failed to keep pace” because we “defined ourselves by what we were against instead of what we were for.” In the media frenzy over Obama’s activities this week, the only thing he is remembered for is for what he stood against.

Pardon my suspicious mind, but the timing of government events appears well, tragicomically orchestrated. On Sept 24 that the US (and now Netanyahu tells us, Israelis too) had known of the second Iranian nuclear site for 4 years. It has not been put in operation, and as such is not obliged to report the plant to anyone. On the 24th the BBC had one little segment suggesting that the Iranian govt had sent the UN a formal acknowledgment of that this apparently lawful site to pre-empt the Euro-American bomblast against their having had a second “secret” site.

I felt disheartened, that out of all that has been said diplomatically, that the self-appointed world vs. Iran would end up being the story of all that happened this week.

At moments of expression like this, I am prone to being called a conspiracy theorist. So please don’t get so put off by my sense of media/political coordination here on distracting public attention from taking care of long-term business. It was so corny for Netanyahu to appear before the US Congress at this moment to demand further support for whatever the Israeli Cabinet demands is non-negotiable about Iran, let alone anything else. I have paid attention to too many orchestrations not to suspect I’m looking at another one. How convenient.

I’ve been wrestling with my corollary belief that Obama is the most sincere and up-front president we’ve had since Jimmy Carter, and maybe before that, since Honest Abe. I also believe that his powers of listening, absorbing, and being decisive are extraordinary. I heard long ago that he is renowned for being final substantive editor of his own speeches—the more important the speech, the greater the personal attention. I believe that his UN general assembly represents as deeply heartfelt a foreign policy commitment to peacemaking as any I have encountered. I imagine Obama is as deeply personally disappointed by the silence on the major substance, carefully crafted, silence as I am, probably more so. I ask myself how this could happen to a supposedly all-powerful president. I imagine he does the same.

I imagine Obama spent hours and hours poring over that speech. I imagine his immediate aides focused on helping him and keeping distractions away. If Obama was concentrating as carefully as his speech suggests (clich├ęs are remarkably absent), he was spared time to attend to countless other international political intrigue. Anyone who preferred political/media attention to focus on an enemy rather than on what to do who collaborated in the current global spotlight on Iran and its problems for whatever reason was spared notice by a president focused on redirecting global human relations.

My sympathy for a president’s attempts to run against the prevailing current is heightened. One reason to give up on Washington fathers’ doing best for us is the limitations of one person’s attention. On coverage of this week in New York and Pittsburgh, Obama and voices from many other nations at the UN was virtually obliterated.

You might point out the general assembly speeches to your friends. Leaders worldwide are genuinely struggling for a better posterity. People speculate on how Lincoln felt when his three-minute address at Gettysburg was met with silence. I wonder about Obama here and now, but above and beyond that, I hope as time passes that people will notice how beautiful and courageous Obama’s words are on this occasion. Love and peace--hal

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