Obama at the UN: Unfulfilled Promise

U.S. President Barack Obama and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon toast at a leaders lunch on Sept. 20, 2016 (UN Photo).

U.S. President Barack Obama and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon toast at a leaders lunch on Sept. 20, 2016 (UN Photo).

Sept. 20, 2016 –  U.S. President Barack Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday for the eight and final time, delivering a lackluster speech, noticeable mostly for the sparsity of applause lines – in stark contrast to his 2009 maiden speech.

That speech seven years ago was constantly interrupted by applause and cheers for the newly-elected U.S. president who promised to herald in a new era of U.S. engagement with the world, music to the ears of UN diplomats and secretariat officials after eight years of George W. Bush and five years after his disastrous decision to invade Iraq without a Security Council resolution.

Obama told delegates in 2009 that he would close Guantanamo, responsibly end the Iraq war, work on an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, stop the spread of nuclear weapons, and take action on climate change.

One the latter two, he has shown commitment and desire. The Iran deal, while far from perfect, appears to have, at least temporarily, halted Tehran’s quest for an atomic weapon. The U.S still remains a non-signatory to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, one of nine countries preventing it from going into force.

On climate change, Obama’s rhetoric has been strong but his actions less so. Much is made of the Paris Agreement, but it is just that, a non-binding agreement that lacks the force of a treaty.

The Guantanamo Bay detention facility remains open, albeit with less that 100 detainees. Nevertheless, it remains open and some detainees have spent more than a dozen years there without charge or trial – in fact, Guantanamo has been open for longer under Obama than under Bush.

The U.S. officially withdrew from Iraq in 2011 but has been re-involved there since 2014 supporting the Iraqi government’s fight against ISIS. Despite the different nature of the operation, many aspects of the 2003-11 Iraq war remain, including an insurgency and armed sectarian conflict. The decision to hastily withdraw from Iraq in 2011 has drawn criticism that it left a security void that was exploited by ISIS.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict Obama called for a Palestinian state during his 2010 UN address but a year later vowed to veto a statehood bid by the Palestinians at the UN.

Where Obama has taken decisive action, such as in Libya, the outcome has been mayhem. Mandated to protect Libyan civilians using all means necessary, the US along with Arab and European allies ousted Gaddafi but failed to plan for the aftermath. The country now has two competing parliaments while another group controls the ports from where Libya exports its oil. The chaos also allowed ISIS gain a foothold in the country and it has become a major transit route for migrants seeking to make the dangerous crossing into Europe.

From the beginning of the Syria conflict in 2011, Obama insisted that Assad must step down and in 2012 he said that if Syria used chemical weapons that would cross a “red line.” Five years later Assad remains in power and continues to use chemical weapons against Syrian citizens.

While there were no easy options for resolving the Syria conflict, some countries at the UN, friendly to the US, suggest that the insistence by the US, along with France and the UK, that Assad step down prevented a solution, albeit an imperfect one, given Russia’s stance that Assad’s fate should be decided by a national poll. The more cynical inside the UN, say that the US, along with France and the UK, always knew that insisting Assad step down was never going to be viable and the status quo would continue - while giving the appearance that the Western powers were on the side of the Syrian people.

The U.S. also championed the cause of South Sudan independence, which was achieved in 2011. Yet, the breakup of Sudan has seen the misery continue for the South Sudanese people, with an estimated more than 50,000 killed in the past five years. Despite that many of the killings can be attributed to government forces, the U.S. remains opposed to an arms embargo on the country.

On the global refugee crisis, the U.S. president has been strong on rhetoric but short on action. A mere 10,000 Syrian refugees have been admitted to the U.S., which is less than the 13,000 admitted by Singapore and far less than the 600,000 admitted to Germany.

The partisanship and gridlock that characterize U.S. domestic politics are responsible for some of Obama’s failures, particularly on closing Guantanamo, ratifying the CTBT, the Disabilities Convention, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. But that aside, despite his charisma and likability, Obama has lacked leadership and decisiveness in confronting global challenges in what is still a U.S.-led world order.

- Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz