That was then ...

There's Obama's Rhetoric, and There's History

James Gibney writes editorials on international affairs for Bloomberg View. He was features editor at the Atlantic, deputy editor at the New York Times op-ed page and executive editor at Foreign Policy magazine. He was a foreign service officer and a speechwriter for Secretary of State Warren Christopher, National Security Adviser Anthony Lake and President Bill Clinton.
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More than a few observers have commented favorably on the pugnaciousness of President Barack Obama's speech today to the United Nations General Assembly. Maybe because I've gone back and re-read all his UNGA speeches, I'm less impressed. What's striking to me is the recurring mismatch between Obama's words and deeds and the trail of fecklessness that's gotten us to this point.

To see what I mean, consider Obama's remarks from the same podium in 2011. Today, we're at a "crossroads between war and peace; between disorder and integration; between fear and hope." In 2011, though, we were at a "crossroads of history with the chance to move decisively in the direction of peace."

What's happened since then -- especially to those places that Obama cited as hopeful examples -- suggests that the U.S. was either blindsided by events, took a wrong turn or pulled over to the side of the road for a nap.

Here's how things looked then:

"At the end of this year, America's military operation in Iraq will be over. ... "

"The tide of war is receding. ... "

"Egyptians from all walks of life ... demanded their universal rights. ... "

"The leaders of a new Libya took their rightful place beside us... "

"Osama bin Laden is gone, and the idea that change could only come through violence has been buried with him."

Well, at least bin Laden's still dead.

(And thank me for sparing you any of the passages on the Middle East peace process, which has become so hopeless that the president mercifully devoted only one paragraph to it this year, instead of 10.)

Obviously, the U.S. isn't to blame for all the bad things that happened in those places since 2011. But it's also hard to argue that different choices or more follow-through by the "indispensable nation" couldn't have made a difference, either.

Here, for instance, is Obama in 2011 on efforts "to stop disease that spreads across borders":

We must come together to prevent, and detect, and fight every kind of biological danger -- whether it's a pandemic like H1N1, or a terrorist threat, or a treatable disease.

This week, America signed an agreement with the World Health Organization to affirm our commitment to meet this challenge. And today, I urge all nations to join us in meeting the WHO's goal of making sure all nations have core capacities to address public health emergencies in place by 2012. That is what our commitment to the health of our people demands.

And it's what the African victims of Ebola are waiting for, too.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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James Gibney at

To contact the editor on this story:
Christopher Flavelle at