Obama Outlines Strong US Role in Middle East at UN
President Barack Obama outlined his past and future policies toward the Middle East in his September 24 U.N. General Assembly speech. He committed to ensuring the free flow of oil from the region to world markets, dismantling terrorist networks, and stopping the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. He also promised that the United States would “continue to promote democracy, human rights, and open markets” to achieve peace and prosperity in the Middle East.
President Obama warned that the United States is prepared to use all elements of its power, including military force, to secure its core interests in the region. But he also acknowledged that unilateral American action, especially military action, is unlikely to succeed. “Iraq shows us that democracy cannot be imposed by force,” he said.
On Syria, the president called for a U.N. Security Council resolution to verify that Bashar al Assad’s regime is keeping its commitment to turn over control of its chemical weapons stockpiles. Obama expressed hope for a diplomatic solution and said the Syrian people should choose their leader, not the United States or any other nation.
On Egypt, the president urged the interim government to move towards true democracy that respects minority rights, the rule of law, freedom of speech and assembly, and a strong civil society. Obama argued that Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government, though democratically elected, “proved unwilling or unable to govern” in a fully inclusive way. But he also stressed that the interim government has also fallen short by imposing an emergency law, and restrictions on the press, civil society, and opposition parties.
Obama also commented extensively on rising sectarianism, the Iranian nuclear dispute and the importance of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process for region-wide peace and prosperity. The following are excerpts from his speech.
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.
Now, to say that these are America’s core interests is not to say that they are our only interests. We deeply believe it is in our interests to see a Middle East and North Africa that is peaceful and prosperous. And we’ll continue to promote democracy and human rights and open markets because we believe these practices achieve peace and prosperity.
But I also believe that we can rarely achieve these objectives through unilateral American action, particularly through military action. Iraq shows us that democracy cannot simply be imposed by force. Rather, these objectives are best achieved when we partner with the international community and with the countries and peoples of the region.
The convulsions in the Middle East and North Africa have laid bare deep divisions within societies, as an old order is upended, and people grapple with what comes next. Peaceful movements have been answered by violence – from those resisting change, and from extremists trying to hijack change. Sectarian conflict has reemerged. And the potential spread of weapons of mass destruction casts a shadow over the pursuit of peace.
The crisis in Syria, and the destabilization of the region, goes to the heart of broader challenges that the international community must now confront. How should we respond to conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa – conflicts between countries, but also conflicts within them? How do we address the choice of standing callously by while children are subjected to nerve gas, or embroiling ourselves in someone else’s civil war? What is the role of force in resolving disputes that threaten the stability of the region and undermine all basic standards of civilized conduct? What is the role of the United Nations, and international law, in meeting cries for justice?
Now, to say these are America’s core interests is not to say these are our only interests. We deeply believe it is in our interest to see a Middle East and North Africa that is peaceful and prosperous; and will continue to promote democracy, human rights, and open markets, because we believe these practices achieve peace and prosperity. But I also believe that we can rarely achieve these objectives through unilateral American action – particularly with military action. Iraq shows us that democracy cannot be imposed by force. Rather, these objectives are best achieved when we partner with the international community, and with the countries and people of the region.
When peaceful transitions began in Tunisia and Egypt, the entire world was filled with hope. And although the United States – like others – was struck by the speed of transition, and did not – in fact could not – dictate events, we chose to support those who called for change. We did so based on the belief that while these transitions will be hard, and take time, societies based upon democracy and openness and the dignity of the individual will ultimately be more stable, more prosperous, and more peaceful.
Over the last few years, particularly in Egypt, we’ve seen just how hard this transition will be. Mohammed Morsi was democratically elected, but proved unwilling or unable to govern in a way that was fully inclusive. The interim government that replaced him responded to the desires of millions of Egyptians who believed the revolution had taken a wrong turn, but it too has made decisions inconsistent with inclusive democracy – through an emergency law, and restrictions on the press, civil society, and opposition parties.
Of course, America has been attacked by all sides of this internal conflict, simultaneously accused of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, and engineering their removal from power. In fact, the United States has purposely avoided choosing sides. Our over-riding interest throughout these past few years has been to encourage a government that legitimately reflects the will of the Egyptian people, and recognizes true democracy as requiring a respect for minority rights, the rule of law, freedom of speech and assembly, and a strong civil society.
That remains our interest today. And so, going forward, the United States will maintain a constructive relationship with the interim government that promotes core interests like the Camp David Accords and counter-terrorism. We will continue support in areas like education that benefit the Egyptian people. But we have not proceeded with the delivery of certain military systems, and our support will depend upon Egypt’s progress in pursuing a democratic path.
Nowhere have we seen these [sectarian] trends converge more powerfully than in Syria. There, peaceful protests against an authoritarian regime were met with repression and slaughter. In the face of carnage, many retreated to their sectarian identity – Alawite and Sunni; Christian and Kurd – and the situation spiraled into civil war. The international community recognized the stakes early on, but our response has not matched the scale of the challenge. Aid cannot keep pace with the suffering of the wounded and displaced. A peace process is still-born. America and others have worked to bolster the moderate opposition, but extremist groups have still taken root to exploit the crisis. Assad’s traditional allies have propped him up, citing principles of sovereignty to shield his regime. And on August 21st, the regime used chemical weapons in an attack that killed more than 1,000 people, including hundreds of children.
With respect to Syria, we believe that as a starting point, the international community must enforce the ban on chemical weapons. When I stated my willingness to order a limited strike against the Assad regime in response to the brazen use of chemical weapons, I did not do so lightly. I did so because I believe it is in the security interest of the United States and the world to meaningfully enforce a prohibition whose origins are older than the U.N. itself. The ban against the use of chemical weapons, even in war, has been agreed to by 98 percent of humanity. It is strengthened by the searing memories of soldiers suffocated in the trenches; Jews slaughtered in gas chambers; and Iranians poisoned in the many tens of thousands.
The evidence is overwhelming that the Assad regime used such weapons on August 21st. U.N. inspectors gave a clear accounting that advanced rockets fired large quantities of sarin gas at civilians. These rockets were fired from a regime-controlled neighborhood, and landed in opposition neighborhoods. It is an insult to human reason – and to the legitimacy of this institution – to suggest that anyone other than the regime carried out this attack.
I know that in the immediate aftermath of the attack, there were those who questioned the legitimacy of even a limited strike in the absence of a clear mandate from the Security Council. But without a credible military threat, the Security Council had demonstrated no inclination to act at all. However, as I’ve discussed with President Putin for over a year, most recently in St. Petersburg, my preference has always been a diplomatic resolution to this issue, and in the past several weeks, the United States, Russia and our allies have reached an agreement to place Syria’s chemical weapons under international control, and then to destroy them.
The Syrian government took a first step by giving an accounting of its stockpiles. Now, there must be a strong Security Council Resolution to verify that the Assad regime is keeping its commitments, and there must be consequences if they fail to do so. If we cannot agree even on this, then it will show that the U.N. is incapable of enforcing the most basic of international laws. On the other hand, if we succeed, it will send a powerful message that the use of chemical weapons has no place in the 21st century, and that this body means what it says.
Agreement on chemical weapons should energize a larger diplomatic effort to reach a political settlement within Syria. I do not believe that military action – by those within Syria, or by external powers – can achieve a lasting peace. Nor do I believe that America or any nation should determine who will lead Syria – that is for the Syrian people to decide. Nevertheless, a leader who slaughtered his citizens and gassed children to death cannot regain the legitimacy to lead a badly fractured country. The notion that Syria can return to a pre-war status quo is a fantasy. It’s time for Russia and Iran to realize that insisting on Assad’s rule will lead directly to the outcome they fear: an increasingly violent space for extremists to operate. In turn, those of us who continue to support the moderate opposition must persuade them that the Syrian people cannot afford a collapse of state institutions, and that a political settlement cannot be reached without addressing the legitimate fears of Alawites and other minorities.
As we pursue a settlement, let us remember that this is not a zero-sum endeavor. We are no longer in a Cold War. There’s no Great Game to be won, nor does America have any interest in Syria beyond the well-being of its people, the stability of its neighbors, the elimination of chemical weapons, and ensuring it does not become a safe-haven for terrorists. I welcome the influence of all nations that can help bring about a peaceful resolution of Syria’s civil war. And as we move the Geneva process forward, I urge all nations here to step up to meet humanitarian needs in Syria and surrounding countries. America has committed over a billion dollars to this effort, and today, I can announce that we will be providing an additional $340 million. No aid can take the place of a political resolution that gives the Syrian people the chance to begin rebuilding their country – but it can help desperate people survive.
I know that some now criticize the action in Libya as an object lesson. They point to problems that the country now confronts – a democratically-elected government struggling to provide security; armed groups, in some places extremists, ruling parts of a fractured land – and argue that any intervention to protect civilians is doomed to fail. No one is more mindful of these problems than I am, for they resulted in the death of four outstanding U.S. citizens who were committed to the Libyan people, including Ambassador Chris Stevens – a man whose courageous efforts helped save the city of Benghazi. But does anyone truly believe that the situation in Libya would be better if Qadhafi had been allowed to kill, imprison, or brutalize his people into submission? It is far more likely that without international action, Libya would now be engulfed in civil war and bloodshed.
In Kenya, we’ve seen terrorists target innocent civilians in a crowded shopping mall. In Pakistan, nearly 100 people were recently killed by suicide bombers outside a church. In Iraq, killings and car bombs continue to be a horrific part of life. Meanwhile, al Qaeda has splintered into regional networks and militias, which has not carried out an attack like 9/11, but does pose serious threats to governments, diplomats, businesses and civilians across the globe.
The United States and Iran have been isolated from one another since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. This mistrust has deep roots. Iranians have long complained of a history of U.S. interference in their affairs, and America’s role in overthrowing an Iranian government during the Cold War. On the other hand, Americans see an Iranian government that has declared the United States an enemy, and directly – or through proxies – taken Americans hostage, killed U.S. troops and civilians, and threatened our ally Israel with destruction.
I don’t believe this difficult history can be overcome overnight – the suspicion runs too deep. But I do believe that if we can resolve the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, that can serve as a major step down a long road towards a different relationship – one based on mutual interests and mutual respect.
Since I took office, I have made it clear – in letters to the Supreme Leader in Iran and more recently to President Rouhani – that America prefers to resolve our concerns over Iran’s nuclear program peacefully, but that we are determined to prevent them from developing a nuclear weapon. We are not seeking regime change, and we respect the right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy. Instead, we insist that the Iranian government meet its responsibilities under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and UN Security Council resolutions.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Leader has issued a fatwa against the development of nuclear weapons, and President Rouhani has just recently reiterated that the Islamic Republic will never develop a nuclear weapon.
These statements made by our respective governments should offer the basis for a meaningful agreement. We should be able to achieve a resolution that respects the rights of the Iranian people, while giving the world confidence that the Iranian program is peaceful. To succeed, conciliatory words will have to be matched by actions that are transparent and verifiable. After all, it is the Iranian government’s choices that have led to the comprehensive sanctions that are currently in place. This isn’t simply an issue between America and Iran – the world has seen Iran evade its responsibilities in the past, and has an abiding interest in making sure that Iran meets its obligations in the future.
We are encouraged that President Rouhani received from the Iranian people a mandate to pursue a more moderate course. Given President Rouhani’s stated commitment to reach an agreement, I am directing John Kerry to pursue this effort with the Iranian government, in close coordination with the European Union, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China. The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested. For while the status quo will only deepen Iran’s isolation, Iran’s genuine commitment to go down a different path will be good for the region and the world, and will help the Iranian people meet their extraordinary potential – in commerce and culture; in science and education.
I have made clear that the United States will never compromise our commitment to Israel’s security, nor our support for its existence as a Jewish state. Earlier this year, in Jerusalem, I was inspired by young Israelis who stood up for the belief that peace was necessary, just, and possible, and I believe there is a growing recognition within Israel that the occupation of the West Bank is tearing at the democratic fabric of the Jewish state. But the children of Israel have the right to live in a world where the nations assembled in this body fully recognize their country, and unequivocally reject those who fire rockets at their homes or incite others to hate them.
Likewise, the United States remains committed to the belief that the Palestinian people have a right to live with security and dignity in their own sovereign state. On the same trip, I had the opportunity to meet with young Palestinians in Ramallah whose ambition and potential are matched by the pain they feel in having no firm place in the community of nations. They are understandably cynical that real progress will ever be made, and frustrated by their families enduring the daily indignity of occupation. But they recognize that two states is the only real path to peace: because just as the Palestinian people must not be displaced, the state of Israel is here to stay.
The time is now ripe for the entire international community to get behind the pursuit of peace. Already, Israeli and Palestinian leaders have demonstrated a willingness to take significant political risks. President Abbas has put aside efforts to short-cut the pursuit of peace and come to the negotiating table. Prime Minister Netanyahu has released Palestinian prisoners, and reaffirmed his commitment to a Palestinian state. Current talks are focused on final status issues of borders and security, refugees and Jerusalem.
Now the rest of us must also be willing to take risks. Friends of Israel, including the United States, must recognize that Israel’s security as a Jewish and democratic state depends upon the realization of a Palestinian state. Arab states – and those who have supported the Palestinians – must recognize that stability will only be served through a two-state solution with a secure Israel. All of us must recognize that peace will be a powerful tool to defeat extremists, and embolden those who are prepared to build a better future. Moreover, ties of trade and commerce between Israelis and Arabs could be an engine of growth and opportunity at a time when too many young people in the region are languishing without work. So let us emerge from the familiar corners of blame and prejudice, and support Israeli and Palestinian leaders who are prepared to walk the difficult road to peace.