Obama at the UN

by Benjamin Studebaker

Barack Obama addressed the United Nations yesterday on the subject of Middle East policy. In the meantime, Mitt Romney continued to criticise the Obama administration on the same issue. Today I would like to discuss the remarks of each, and point out one key flaw at the heart of both men’s policies.

First off, Obama.

Obama eulogised recently killed US ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens. He declared freedom and democracy to be universal global values, and praised the recent regime changes in the Middle East and America’s role in facilitating them. An ordinary, very standard beginning, one which could have come from any American president over the last several decades. Then there was something a bit different. He did not sabre-rattle, accusing other cultures of barbarism. He did not capitulate, conceding anything that might make the killing seem justified. Instead, he provided a nuanced explanation of freedom of speech and religion as principles. He argued:

We understand why people take offense to this video because millions of our citizens are among them. I know there are some who ask why don’t we just ban such a video. The answer is enshrined in our laws. Our Constitution protects the right to practice free speech.  Here in the United States, countless publications provoke offense. Like me, the majority of Americans are Christian, and yet we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs. As president of our country, and commander in chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day, and I will always defend their right to do so.

This bit has gone around the internet and received wide praise, as well it should. There was however another interesting idea in the speech. Obama denounced this and similar acts of political violence as counterproductive to the very interests of the people carrying it out:

Burning an American flag does nothing to provide a child an education. Smashing apart a restaurant does not fill an empty stomach. Attacking an embassy won’t create a single job.

There is quite a bit of fluttery language throughout, but it strikes me as surprisingly nuanced. American foreign policy is not famous for nuance. American foreign policy is famous for braggadocio, and that is precisely what Mitt Romney has to offer.

Romney’s initial reaction to the killing of Chris Stevens was to falsely accuse the administration of apologising for America, during the course of which he said:

It’s a terrible course for America to stand in apology for its values.

This was followed up by Romney’s new plan to make US aid to other countries conditional on those countries accepting American economic, social, and political policies. By once again trying to impose the agenda of free markets and free trade upon other countries, Romney demonstrates an unwillingness to help other countries with different views from his own country. Coercing other nations through the threat of loss of financial aid into embracing Washington Consensus, neoliberal policies is both imperialist in attitude (in so far as it seeks to impose a way of doing things upon other countries and peoples) and anti-historical. Contrary to Romney’s claims about free trade and free enterprise, as Friedrich List illustrated quite a long time ago, development has historically always been the result of government protectionism of nascent industries through subsidies and tariffs on outside products until those industries have the strength to compete internationally against established competition. Opening up Middle Eastern economies to the west’s transnational corporations and free trade will not lead to improvements in the wealth of the region, but will instead lead to the region’s wealth being carried off, as was the case in pre-Gaddafi Libya under King Idris. These economic interventions do not lead to development but instead to dependency on western companies to supply the countries in question with jobs. One such country currently seeing the negative impacts of such a policy is Nigeria, in which the oil wealth is controlled by a variety of multi-nationals at the expense of the wider economic interests of the nation, facilitated by a corrupt government and resulting in more terrorism and violence in the country, not less.

Yet, despite seeming gaps in attitude between Obama and Romney on Middle East policy, they are in reality somewhat closer in alignment than first meets the eye. In the same speech, Obama also said this:

We have taken these positions [supporting Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, intervening in Libya] because we believe that freedom and self-determination are not unique to one culture. These are not simply American values or Western values; they are universal values.

Both sides of the political spectrum in the United States have yet to relinquish the fundamental fallacy that brought about and maintained conflicts like the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq–the notion that the American system and American values can be exported everywhere to everyone. When people want the help of the United States to learn American technology, to gain access to American culture or to the American political system, let them ask for it. The United States’ continued willingness to impose these values, while perhaps stronger with Romney than it is with Obama, contributes to the perception that the United States does not respect other nations and wishes to dictate to other countries what sort of policies they implement. It is wrong to deny people aid and assistance when they ask for it, but it is also wrong to force people to accept what appears to Americans to be aid and assistance when many of them do not desire it, do not see it that way, and will in fact attempt to punish the United States for doing so with violence.

Obama’s speech is a step in the right direction for American foreign policy, but there is some distance yet to go. Unfortunately, Mitt Romney has once again illustrated that where Obama has not gone far enough in one direction, he will choose not to go further, but to simply turn around and abandon the work.