Home/Daniel Larison/Obama’s U.N. Speech and American “Involvement” in the Near East

Obama’s U.N. Speech and American “Involvement” in the Near East

Isaac Chotiner noticed a recurring flaw in Obama’s U.N. speech:

There are several problems with this example, but the central one is that there is nothing hypocritical about it. There is no contradiction. Some people think the United States has meddled in the Middle East and supported unsavory regimes, and even aided conspiracies in the region. Other people think the United States should do more to help suffering Muslims. How do these two things contradict one another in any way? [bold mine-DL] Moreover, is Obama arguing that the same groups of people are arguing both things, and are therefore hypocritical? Or is he saying, as usual, that the United States has found a nice middle ground between doing too little and doing too much? And what does this have to do with Syria?

My guess is this: Obama is so wedded to the idea of being the sensible leader that he simply cannot resist these formulations, even when they don’t really make sense.

It would be fair to observe that some critics will fault the U.S. no matter what it does or doesn’t do in the region, and it would also be fair to say that there are truly absurd conspiracy theories that blame the U.S. for anything and everything that happens, but that wasn’t really the point Obama makes in this part of the speech. Part of Obama’s purpose in setting up this non-contradictory “contradiction” was to blame these arguments for making Americans more resistant to intervention in the region. As Obama said in the next line:

But these contradictory attitudes have a practical impact on the American people’s support for our involvement in the region and allow leaders in the region, as well as the international community sometimes, to avoid addressing difficult problems themselves.

What Obama doesn’t address here is that the one complaint flows quite naturally from the other. The U.S. is faulted for meddling in the region because the U.S. has meddled and continues to meddle, it has done so at the expense of the civilian population in several countries, and it has tended to define its “involvement” in the region primarily in terms of coercing other states, using force against them, and supporting abusive client regimes. It is not just a matter of “doing too much” or “doing too little.” It is the substance of what is being done that matters far more. U.S. interference in the region has been harmful often enough that very few trust the U.S. when it claims to be acting on behalf of “suffering Muslim populations.” U.S. “involvement” has been defined so much by the harm that it has done to the region that people here in the U.S. and in the Near East understandably recoil from that “involvement.” If Americans are not very supportive of U.S. “involvement in the region” now, that has a lot to do with the nature of that “involvement” and the significant and unnecessary price that Americans have paid for the sake of such “involvement.”

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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