WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama, in his annual speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday, said the era of big wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have dominated the last decade is closing and the world should come together in support of the remarkable democracy movements of the past year that have swept across the Middle East and North Africa.
What he didn’t say: the U.S. is in the middle of a significant counterterrorism buildup surrounding that region, offering the muscle to back the peace.
“Let there be no doubt: the tide of war is receding,” Obama said. “When I took office, roughly 180,000 Americans were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. By the end of this year, that number will be cut in half, and it will continue to decline.”
“Yes, this has been a difficult decade. But today, we stand at a crossroads of history with the chance to move decisively in the direction of peace,” he said.
Obama signaled where the United States’ national security interests are most focused, listing every country embroiled in the Arab spring and on its borders, including Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, Tunisia, Sudan, and Cote d’Ivoire.
“Something is happening in our world. The way things have been is not the way they will be. The humiliating grip of corruption and tyranny is being pried open. Technology is putting power in the hands of the people. The youth are delivering a powerful rebuke to dictatorship, and rejecting the lie that some races, religions and ethnicities do not desire democracy. The promise written down on paper – ‘all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’ – is closer at hand,” he said, citing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Obama’s speech barely mentioned North Korea or Iran, whose President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has replaced Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi and Cuba’s Fidel Castro as the global outlier.
Obama never mentioned China.
He also omitted that the U.S. is increasing secretive military and intelligence-based counterterrorism operations around the Middle East and Horn of Africa, ramping up budgets for special operations forces, building up existing bases and establishing ring of drone bases.
Instead, Obama gave special attention to the Syrian regime’s violent crackdown of its indigenous democracy movement and to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has returned to headlines as rioters amid Cairo’s still unsettled power vacuum stormed the Israeli embassy, fueling renewed anti-Israeli sentiment across the region.
Syrians, Obama said, are “dying for the same values that this institution is supposed to stand for. The question for us is clear: Will we stand with the Syrian people, or with their oppressors?”
But on the tip of many tongues this year is that Palestine is bidding for statehood, a move that puts the United States in the diplomatically awkward position of vetoing a democracy effort amid the Arab spring.
The president, who is widely perceived as staying out of the peace process, put the onus for peace on Israelis and Palestinians.
“One year ago, I stood at this podium and called for an independent Palestine. I believed then – and I believe now – that the Palestinian people deserve a state of their own. But what I also said is that genuine peace can only be realized between Israelis and Palestinians themselves.”