There's something about him -- the way he speaks, the way he carries himself, the inexorable charisma he exudes when addressing a distinguished gathering. You find yourself drawn to Barack Obama, almost reluctantly, as if against your will. And in your state of enthrallment, your heart flutters -- like a lovesick adolescent, you can't help but wonder if maybe she likes you too. And as you dreamily listen to his words, you can't help but hope beyond hope that he's on your side.
For those of us who came of age during the era of Bush II ("Is our children learning?"), Pres. Obama is a breath of fresh air, if only due to his eloquence in speech and familiarity with the English language. But even his policies seem refreshing at times.
Last Wednesday, in his first address to the United Nations General Assembly, he emphasized the shared destiny of mankind, using words like "together", "cooperation", "collective", and "interdependence" a combined total of 32 times.
Even his critics were in awe. Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi fawned as he expressed his joy and pride in "our son of the African lands." "This is completely different from anything we have ever heard from a US leader before," he exclaimed. But he appeared to appreciate the inherent limitations of one man in changing the course of an obstinate nation. After all, "who can guarantee how America will be governed after Obama?"
In his June speech in Cairo, Mr. Obama had recognized the significance of the Palestinian conflict in shaping global perceptions of the United States. At the UN, he boldly reiterates that "America does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements." This was consistent with his earlier declarations that "settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward." Thus, one finds it perplexing when in the next line, he calls for negotiations to be relaunched without preconditions. Apparently, the president's determination on the issue had weakened in the face of continued stonewalling by the Israeli government.
The president then presents his pillar of the "pursuit of peace" and declares that "the murder of innocent men, women, and children will never be tolerated." His words are particularly ironic given his vehement rejection of the Goldstone report on the Gaza conflict released just eight days earlier. As part of the official UN fact-finding mission, Justice Richard Goldstone concludes that the bombing was a "disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population." Human Rights Watch had predicted that the US response to the report would "put to the test" the Obama administration's devotion to human rights in the Middle East. (Unfortunately, we seem to have failed, with Ambassador Susan Rice toeing the official Israeli line, rejecting the report as "unbalanced, one-sided and...unacceptable.")
Pres. Obama's foremost "fundamental pillar for the future" is nuclear nonproliferation. It is this very "pillar" that enables him to threaten violent action against Iran and North Korea. In fact, recent media reports suggest that the administration will demand inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities within weeks.
However, recent disclosures about the illicit nuclear program of another rogue Middle Eastern state have prompted accusations of double standards. On Sept. 18th, the International Atomic Energy Agency voted to "urge Israel to allow nuclear inspectors." It turns out that Israel has one of the world's largest nuclear arsenals - as many as 400 warheads - and is rapidly moving to enhance the range of its strike capabilities." The American delegate rejected the resolution for singling out one country, while the Israeli representative said that he "deplored" the resolution and pledged that "Israel will not cooperate in any matter."
An IAEA spokesman issued the following angry response:
Nations that refuse to live up to their obligations must face consequences...This is not about singling out individual nations...a world in which IAEA inspections are avoided and the United Nations' demands are ignored will leave all people less safe and all nations less secure...The world must stand together to demonstrate that international law is not an empty promise and that treaties will be enforced. We must insist that the future does not belong to fear.
(In the president's defense, perhaps he's following a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy when it comes to Israeli weapons of mass destruction.)
Pres. Obama is a powerful and charismatic figure. Many young people may be content with flowery rhetoric even if the accompanying policies are inconsistent and indefensible. We will fondly remember the mist in our eyes when we realized our nation's potential to be a force for good and not evil in the world.
But we will always wonder why that potential was never actualized.
And then there's the war in Afghanistan, which went virtually unaddressed in the president's speech. He has referred to it a "war of necessity", and, in an editorial last Thursday, the New York Times called it "Obama's War." John Mayer memorably sang in 2006 about "waiting on the world to change" so that we could bring our neighbors home from war. How much longer must we wait?
Pres. Hugo Chavez of Venezuela has often been dismissed as a "class clown" by his more refined counterparts. He began his address on Thursday with levity, giving shout-outs to his favorite heads of state on the UN floor, with a special emphasis on the enigmatic "Lula" of Brazil.
But he voiced the concerns of untold millions when he marveled at the disconnect between Mr. Obama's speeches and his policies. "Are there two Obamas?" he wondered.
In the end, though, even he has no choice but to submit to the aura of hope.
"Let us hope the Obama we heard yesterday will prevail," he concludes. "That's what the world needs. The world is calling for that Obama to prevail."
So are we, Mr. Chavez. So are we.
[The entire collection of addresses at the 2009 UN General Debate is available at the General Assembly website. The translation of Mr. Qaddafi's speech has been widely criticized for its poor quality; we were unable to find an English-language transcript of Mr. Chavez's address available online.]