Harry Blaney III

President Obama gave at the U.N. General Assembly his best speech on America’s role in the world since his Prague Speech at the start of his first term. It gives not only his perspective of the kind of world we face but also his prescription for engagement in that world. It was both bold and cautious. While acknowledging the limits of unilateral American power and the use of force, it did not flinch from accepting America’s responsibility for global leadership and caring about the dangers beyond our borders.

 He outlined in a way few presidents have before and stated, frankly, the challenges of the shifting and still dangerous international environment our nation and the world faces. In particular, he laid out in some detail just what are the problems, constraints and the need to deal with the Syria conflict. He correctly indicated the great creative acts of America after World War II as an example of America’s role in world affairs.

 In addressing his Syria policy, after noting how the criticisms on all sides have had an impact on America decision-making he added, however: “The United States of America is prepared to use all elements of our power, including military force, to secure these core interests in the region.”

 At the same time he noted that democracy could not be imposed by military force. He said that cooperation in the Middle East and beyond could not be done without the cooperation of the states in the region and their people.

 He shared with us all the problems America faces and cited blodly what the key conundrums before him where:

 “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?”


 Few leaders have so specifically recognized in public the difficulties of finding just the right option, the most efficacious path, and doing the least harm. But abve all he called for more international cooperation. Despite real doubts about the honesty of the Russians and Syria to truly give up their poison gas, he has decided to try the difficult diplomatic and UN Security Council tract, but also said that if that did not work he was prepared to act in any case.


Another aspect of his speech was the long-term perspective he provided. He said that America was in the Middle East for “the long haul” but his whole view on all the key issues like economic equality, development, dealing with proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and other foreign affairs problems were long-term subjects needing attention.


The key element in his speech was a cry for the need of real multilateral cooperation and to work with other like minded states to solve a host of global challenges. In this statement was a quiet rebut to Europe, the Arab States, Russia and China. The latter two nations have made the United Nations a weak force to deal with mass killings and other global problems generally.


Some people have raised the questioned if he can actually act to implement his objectives. As if Obama could simply raise his hands and the waters would part. I note especially the op-ed by Maureen Dowd “No Brief Encounter” in the New York Times on September 25th which was filled with nasty half-baked criticism of Obama’s foreign policies. Her op-ed focused narrowly on the so-called hoped for “handshake” between Obama and Iran’s President Rouhani which did not take place. Such myopic perspective seems to be the order of the day rather than recognizing that nothing in global politics is easy or immediately realizable.


The truth is Syria remains a problem with great dangers and complexity and my judgement as a Policy Planner for three Secretaries of State is that the Obama/Kerry/Hagel team, as outlined in Obama’s speech, have in fact maneuvered adroitly in a fast changing unpredictable landscape. They got the Russians to sit down and negotiate (seen by some, wrongly, as a defeat), and have positioned America to act militarily if needed and have started to arm moderate opposition elements, perhaps too slowly in my view. They are opening a high level dialogue with the new Iranian President which is positive and kept their options open. In short, they have proceeded systematically and with care in situations where clarity nor surety exist. Oama himself said this about his problems and approach.

Obama has many obstacles ahead  including Republican intransigence and their indifference to American security or interests. Yet his explicit goals outlined in his two earlier key foreign affairs speeches and before the UN Generally Assembly yesterday, are ambitious but defined and see the world as it is not as we hope it would or should  be. He has gone around Republican “climate deniers” by acting via executive powers to reduce greenhouse gasses. He has taken the pivot to Asia and started a key dialogue with China, has is pushing Trans-Atlantic and Trans-Pacific trade pacts, and he has sent Secretary Kerry, a most able diplomatic warrior, to take on the formidable task pushing for a Middle East peace agreement despite the odds. The final results on Syria are yet months, if not years ahead, but who has so far had a better and more careful plan than Obama?  Yes, more can be done but with higher risks?

In sum, with this speech there could not be more clarity on Obama’s foreign affairs agenda. With both his past accomplishments and now new efforts, all indicate he will not be sitting back waiting for his critics to pounce on either his inaction or action. He will try to do the things that will help our security and address key global challenges but knows the constraints and the imperatives. Better for us all.

We welcome your comments!


  1. Paul Sack September 27, 2013 / 3:37 PM

    Thanks, Harry. I agree that the killings by the government in Syria are a major humanitarian horror but think that the solution is to remove Assad–probably a job for the CIA and its drones–and does not require further intervention. Beyond that, I frankly deplore the prospect of inter-communal bloodbaths in Syria and India/Pakistan but do not think they are really core interests of the United States.

  2. Harry C. Blaney III September 27, 2013 / 11:10 AM

    Paul, Good question and thank you.

    First, the “pivot toward Asia” was stated explicitly by the administration as not being at the expense of attention to other key areas. President Obama indicated that we have many interests and clearly both Asia and the Middle East are among them. Proof that Asia is not being neglected besides Obama’s meeting with China’s president and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is going to Asia with stops in Korea and Japan. In Korea for the 60th Anniversary of the U.S.-Republic of Korea alliance and then to Tokyo, where he will join Secretary of State John Kerry for the U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Committee. Neglectful? No.

    Non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction are among our “core interests” and both the Middle East and Asia are part of that problem. We are fully engaged in the Middle East peace negotiations with Secretary John Kerry in the lead, He is dealing with Syria via the United Nations and the permanent members of the Security Council, possible development of a Geneva II meeting on issues beyond poison gas, and if necessary, use of force if all this fails.

    And now, thankfully, we are talking directly with Iran on the key issue of their nuclear programs. A deep concern also is the Pakistan-India confrontation by two nuclear weapons states where the possibility of hostilities and instability gives us deep reason for full engagement.

    American security was stated by Obama as a “core interest” and Syria with its potential to put the rest of the Middle East into the flames of a inter-communal blood bath is enough for us to seek a solution as well as the humanitarian horrors we are seeing each day. Obama himself raise that issue in his UN speech asking about the world standing aside when genocide continues. The weapons of mass destructive including poison gas and nuclear weapons are clearly part of that “core interest” and beyond to our other general interests and values.

  3. Paul Sack September 26, 2013 / 10:24 PM

    What happened to the “pivot toward Asia”? Looks as though we have pivoted back to the Middle East. And I do not think the U.S. has any “core interests” in Syria.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s