U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 28, 2015.

U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 28, 2015. AP Photo/Richard Drew

The Real Audience for Obama’s U.N. Speech Was Republicans

Though he was speaking in an international forum, the president’s message actually seemed targeted at the 2016 GOP field.

Pres­id­ent Obama rarely takes the op­por­tun­ity to talk back to the Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates, es­pe­cially with top White House aides go­ing out of their way to claim he doesn’t watch their de­bates or heed their at­tacks.

But on Monday, the pres­id­ent left little doubt that he has been pay­ing at­ten­tion to what they’ve been say­ing on for­eign policy. And he thinks they are wrong.

The stage for his re­sponse was one where do­mest­ic polit­ic­al con­cerns rarely in­trude on glob­al crises, geo­pol­it­ic­al strategies, and dip­lo­mat­ic touch points. Ever since Harry Tru­man in­aug­ur­ated the an­nu­al prac­tice, pres­id­ents al­most al­ways aim high when they ad­dress the open­ing of the United Na­tions Gen­er­al As­sembly, their mes­sage dir­ec­ted at the world lead­ers ar­rayed in front of them.

This time, this pres­id­ent did have plenty to say to the lead­ers of Rus­sia, China, Ir­an, and Cuba. But not be­fore he made clear just how wrong­headed are the Re­pub­lic­ans who have been rip­ping in­to his for­eign policy for months as feck­less, weak, per­il­ous, and even trait­or­ous. He has heard the can­did­ates pledge to break trade treat­ies in this hemi­sphere, de­mand pro­tect­ive tar­iffs, and threaten to use mil­it­ary force against North Korea, China, Rus­sia, Syr­ia, Ir­an, and Ir­aq.

With al­most sev­en years as pres­id­ent un­der his belt, Obama came across as the eld­er states­men saddened by the im­petu­ous­ness of un­tested can­did­ates. He sug­ges­ted that with some season­ing, they will learn what he already knows and re­cog­nizes: “that dip­lomacy is hard, that the out­comes are some­times un­sat­is­fy­ing, that it’s rarely polit­ic­ally pop­u­lar.”

His lar­ger mes­sage to those fight­ing for his job is not to give up on mul­ti­lat­er­al in­sti­tu­tions and the in­ter­na­tion­al or­der built so ar­du­ously un­der Amer­ic­an guid­ance in the sev­en dec­ades since the end of World War II. “There are those who ar­gue that the ideals en­shrined in the U.N. charter are un­achiev­able or out of date—a leg­acy of a post­war era not suited to our own,” he said. “Ef­fect­ively, they ar­gue for a re­turn to the rules that ap­plied for most of hu­man his­tory and that pred­ate this in­sti­tu­tion: the be­lief that power is a zero-sum game; that might makes right; that strong states must im­pose their will on weak­er ones; that the rights of in­di­vidu­als don’t mat­ter; and that in a time of rap­id change, or­der must be im­posed by force.”

Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin was the os­tens­ible tar­get of that re­mark. But it also re­flec­ted the re­peated prom­ises of mil­it­ary force heard in the GOP de­bates. More dir­ectly, Obama lamen­ted what he sees in West­ern and Amer­ic­an polit­ics, com­plain­ing that “the in­creas­ing skep­ti­cism of our in­ter­na­tion­al or­der can also be found in the most ad­vanced demo­cra­cies.”

He ad­ded, “We see great­er po­lar­iz­a­tion, more fre­quent grid­lock; move­ments on the Far Right, and some­times the Left, that in­sist on stop­ping the trade that binds our fates to oth­er na­tions, call­ing for the build­ing of walls to keep out im­mig­rants. Most omin­ously, we see the fears of or­din­ary people be­ing ex­ploited through ap­peals to sec­tari­an­ism, or tri­bal­ism, or ra­cism, or anti-Semit­ism; ap­peals to a glor­i­ous past be­fore the body polit­ic was in­fec­ted by those who look dif­fer­ent, or wor­ship God dif­fer­ently; a polit­ics of us versus them.”

Lest there be any doubt of his tar­get, he de­clared that the United States “is not im­mune” from the af­flic­tion. “Even as our eco­nomy is grow­ing and our troops have largely re­turned from Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan, we see in our de­bates about Amer­ica’s role in the world a no­tion of strength that is defined by op­pos­i­tion to old en­emies, per­ceived ad­versar­ies, a rising China, or a re­sur­gent Rus­sia; a re­volu­tion­ary Ir­an, or an Is­lam that is in­com­pat­ible with peace. We see an ar­gu­ment made that the only strength that mat­ters for the United States is bel­li­cose words and shows of mil­it­ary force; that co­oper­a­tion and dip­lomacy will not work.”

While the Re­pub­lic­ans re­peatedly as­sert he has let the Amer­ic­an mil­it­ary muscle at­rophy, he in­sisted, “I lead the strongest mil­it­ary that the world has ever known, and I will nev­er hes­it­ate to pro­tect my coun­try or our al­lies, uni­lat­er­ally and by force where ne­ces­sary.” He warned against over­use of that mil­it­ary, though.

“No mat­ter how power­ful our mil­it­ary, how strong our eco­nomy, we un­der­stand the United States can­not solve the world’s prob­lems alone,” he said. “In Ir­aq, the United States learned the hard les­son that even hun­dreds of thou­sands of brave, ef­fect­ive troops, tril­lions of dol­lars from our Treas­ury, can­not by it­self im­pose sta­bil­ity on a for­eign land. Un­less we work with oth­er na­tions un­der the mantle of in­ter­na­tion­al norms and prin­ciples and law that of­fer le­git­im­acy to our ef­forts, we will not suc­ceed. And un­less we work to­geth­er to de­feat the ideas that drive dif­fer­ent com­munit­ies in a coun­try like Ir­aq in­to con­flict, any or­der that our mil­it­ar­ies can im­pose will be tem­por­ary.”

Obama seemed to be look­ing bey­ond the Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates with a mes­sage for Amer­ic­an voters who are voicing sup­port for the GOP pitch. “A polit­ics and solid­ar­ity that de­pend on de­mon­iz­ing oth­ers, that draws on re­li­gious sec­tari­an­ism or nar­row tri­bal­ism or jin­go­ism, may at times look like strength in the mo­ment, but over time its weak­ness will be ex­posed,” he warned. “And his­tory tells us that the dark forces un­leashed by this type of polit­ics surely makes all of us less se­cure. Our world has been there be­fore. We gain noth­ing from go­ing back.”