The United States will defend and promote democratic liberties – including freedom of expression – even though democracy is “hard work” and despite recent setbacks, President Barack Obama today told the United Nations General Assembly.
“We have taken these positions because we believe that freedom and self-determination are not unique to one culture. These are not simply American values or Western values – they are universal values,” he said.
“And even as there will be huge challenges that come with a transition to democracy, I am convinced that ultimately government of the people, by the people and for the people is more likely to bring about the stability, prosperity, and individual opportunity that serve as a basis for peace in our world.”
In a speech framed by the violent anti-American protests prompted by a crudely-made anti-Islamic video, he began his speech with a tribute to Chris Stevens, the U.S. envoy to Libya killed in a jihadist attack on the Benghazi consulate, and a staunch supporter of the country’s democratic transition.
“Today, we must affirm that our future will be determined by people like Chris Stevens, and not by his killers,” Obama said. “Today, we must declare that this violence and intolerance has no place among our United Nations.”
Democracy advocates are fond of insisting that transition is a process, not an event, and Obama affirmed the importance of long-term commitment to institutionalizing democracy in varying dimensions.
“The turmoil of recent weeks reminds us that the path to democracy does not end with the casting of a ballot,’ he said
True democracy demands that citizens cannot be thrown in jail because of what they believe, and businesses can be opened without paying a bribe. It depends on the freedom of citizens to speak their minds and assemble without fear; on the rule of law and due process that guarantees the rights of all people. In other words, true democracy – real freedom – is hard work.
While condemning the “crude and disgusting” video that provoked the recent spate of violent protests, Obama defended freedom of expression and explained why the U.S. prizes the First Amendment.
“We do so because in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can become a tool to silence critics, or oppress minorities,” he said. “We do so because given the power of faith in our lives, and the passion that religious differences can inflame, the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech — the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.”
“The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam. Yet to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see when the image of Jesus Christ is desecrated, churches are destroyed, or the Holocaust is denied,” he told the assembly. “Let us condemn incitement against Sufi Muslims, and Shiite pilgrims. Together, we must work towards a world where we are strengthened by our differences, and not defined by them.”
(Full speech transcript here.)
The Arab Awakening has proved to be a “harsh test” of Obama’s commitment to promoting democracy, according to the New York Times’ Helene Cooper and Robert F. Worth, never more so than when senior officials debated how the U.S. should respond to the Tahrir Square protests against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak:
In the Situation Room, [Defense Secretary. Robert M. Gates, [Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman] Admiral Mike Mullen, Jeffrey D. Feltman, then an assistant secretary of state, and others balked at the inclusion in Mr. Obama’s planned remarks that Mr. Mubarak’s “transition must begin now,” arguing that it was too aggressive.
Mr. Mubarak had steadfastly stood by the United States in the face of opposition from his own public, they said. The president, officials said, countered swiftly: “If ‘now’ is not in my remarks, there’s no point in me going out there and talking.”
John O. Brennan, chief counterterrorism adviser to Mr. Obama, said the president saw early on what others did not: that the Arab Spring movement had legs. “A lot of people were in a state of denial that this had an inevitability to it….And I think that’s what the president clearly saw, that there was an inevitability to it that would clearly not be turned back, and it would only be delayed by suppression and bloodshed.”
So “now” stayed in Mr. Obama’s statement. Ten days later, Mr. Mubarak was out.
But defense, economic and other strategic considerations necessitated that the administration take a more calculated stance on the pro-democracy protests in Bahrain, Cooper and Worth suggest:
The reasons for Mr. Obama’s reticence were clear: Bahrain sits just off the Saudi coast, and the Saudis were never going to allow a sudden flowering of democracy next door, especially in light of the island’s sectarian makeup. Bahrain’s people are mostly Shiite, and they have long been seen as a cat’s paw for Iranian influence by the Sunni rulers of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. In addition, the United States maintains a naval base in Bahrain that is seen as a bulwark against Iran, crucial for maintaining the flow of oil from the region.
“We realized that the possibility of anything happening in Saudi Arabia was one that couldn’t become a reality,” said William M. Daley, President Obama’s then-chief of staff. “For the global economy, this couldn’t happen. Yes, it was treated differently from Egypt. It was a different situation.”
Some analysts credit Mr. Obama for recognizing early on that strategic priorities trumped whatever sympathy he had for the protesters. Others say the administration could have more effectively mediated between the Bahraini government and the largely Shiite protesters, and thereby avoided what has become a sectarian standoff in one of the world’s most volatile places.
Administration officials reject charges of inconsistency and insist that the U.S. – and the president – can best exert leverage sparingly and selectively:
“Were he to be calling all the time, it would run counter to our assertion that we won’t dictate the outcome of every decision in every country,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a top national security aide. Limiting his outreach, Mr. Rhodes said, “heightens the impact of presidential engagement” when Mr. Obama does get on the phone.
“Still,” Cooper and Worth conclude, “there remains concern in the administration that at any moment, events could spiral out of control, leaving the president and his advisers questioning their belief that their early support for the Arab Spring would deflect longstanding public anger toward the United States.”