Obama's UN Speech

Obama's UN speech lays out an agenda full of risks. But they're better than the status quo.

The Iran section will get the most press, and for understandable reasons: he publicly directed John Kerry to start talking with Iran and President Hassan Rouhani. That's new and bold and risky, and he should be applauded for it. I can't say I'm particularly hopeful that Iran will approach this entente in good faith. Rouhani doesn't strike me as Gorbachev. But then again, Gorbachev didn't strike most people as Gorbachev for a good long time, if you follow my drift.

Second headline: Strong commitment to the Middle East peace process. One of his top two priorities. Clock is ticking pretty fast on this one, too. A lot on Kerry's shoulders.

Third headline: Syria. There are already some signs that Syria is playing some games with regard to declaring its chemical weapons cache. Obama was forceful that "the U.N.," by which he of course means Russia, must live up to its stated commitments and ensure that those weapons are placed under international control.

All these are very difficult situations, to state the painfully obvious. If rebuffed in all cases, Obama risks looking played. But the alternatives are the status quo and more war. These are risks worth taking.

What interested me even more than the headlines was his little riff on the projection of American hegemony. In the context of talking about Egypt, Obama noted that the United States has been accused of both backing the Muslim Brotherhood and of engineering the coup that removed it from power. Then he said that in fact, the danger is not that the United States is these days too aggressively interventionist or imperialist. Rather, he said, the "danger" (yes, danger) is that a war-weary United States may "disengage," leaving a "vacuum" in global affairs that would be filled by others.

I kind of liked hearing this, although I doubt most liberals did. But it's the right posture. One of Obama's biggest historical jobs is to persuade the American public after Iraq and Afghanistan (as soon as Afghanistan is over, that is) that retreat from a global role, which is not a euphemism for military action but includes active and aggressive diplomacy, would be a grave error. The fact at this point is that he is not succeeding at that task. But at least he's trying. A diplomatic breakthrough in one of three areas named above would go a long way toward persuading Americans that Obama's liberal internationalism is the right stance for the times.