Deciphering Obama’s U.N. Speech

Posted on 10/2/13
By PoliTact | Via
(Photo by Africa Renewal, Creative Commons License)
(Photo by Africa Renewal, Creative Commons License)

President Barack Obama delivered an overarching speech at the 68th session of the U.N. General Assembly session on September 24. The focus of the speech and the session at large remained on Iran and Syria, as was expected. However, Obama also laid out the broad contours for the future of American policy in the Middle East and North Africa. He had been criticized earlier for not doing so. Ironically, his U.N. speech sounded more like the State of the Union address, with one segment focused on addressing the war-weary American audiences, and the other on the international concerns regarding American unilateralism and exceptionalism.

The speech also hinted at the emerging American posture, including areas where the U.S. and Pakistan have disagreements. One such area is obviously drone attacks in tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, which violate Pakistan’s state sovereignty; the other is how to deal with the non-state actors and the role of International law and the U.N. in this regard.

Rebutting Putin

Countering President Putin’s article in The New York Times on September 11, Obama stated that America was indeed exceptional, and it would act when there were justifiable moral reasons to do so.

“But I believe America is exceptional. In part because we have shown a willingness through the sacrifice of blood and treasure to stand up not only for our own narrow self interests, but for the interests of all.”

Putin had written in his piece:

“It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”

American Interests in the Middle East

Obama went on to spell out the core American interests at stake in the Middle East: the free flow of energy; dismantling terrorist networks; building the capacity of its partners to fight the extremists; and preventing the development and use of weapons of mass destruction.

For this purpose, Obama stated: “The United States of America is prepared to use all elements of our power, including military force, to secure these core interests in the region.”

Emerging Threats and Growing Concerns

Obama cited the Church massacre in Peshawar and the recent attack carried out by Al-Shabab in Kenya, to demonstrate that how the Al Qaeda core has diminished but many splinter affiliates have emerged which continue to pose a threat to the US and its allies. He added that drones have proved to be the “best” weapon against the terrorists that are themselves violating state sovereignty. “Sovereignty cannot be a shield for tyrants to commit wanton murders, or an excuse for the international community to turn a blind eye to slaughter,” Obama stated.

At the same time, he clarified how the United States has addressed the international concerns regarding a widespread use of drones: “We have limited the use of drones so they target only those who pose a continuing, imminent threat to the United States where capture [of terrorists] is not feasible, and there is a near certainty of no civilian casualties.”

It is this point that has persisted against the argument Pakistan has presented, claiming the strikes to be a violation of International laws. This difference will likely remain a sticking point now that Pakistan is contemplating on negotiating with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (the Taliban group fighting against the Pakistani state).

Why, What, and Who to Negotiate With

With who to negotiate, why, and what, has remained a convoluted dilemma for Pakistan, along with the appropriateness of when to use and cease the use of force. Pakistan has quoted the example of the United States negotiating with the Afghan Taliban as an example to justify its talks with the TTP. Another most-cited reason is that force alone cannot work and ultimately talks will have to be held. However, others argue that Afghan Taliban and the TTP are not comparable; the former is fighting against foreign occupation while in Pakistan there is no such cause.

On the other hand, the TTP has over the years presented a number of reasons for its bloody campaign against Pakistani state and its people. One of them being they do not want Pakistan to support and give transit facility to supplies for NATO forces in Afghanistan. Secondly, they demand imposition of Islamic system in Pakistan. Thirdly, they justify their violence as a reaction to the drone strikes targeting them. They consider the Pakistani government complicit in these attacks since it does not obstruct them.

The formula the United States has evolved for negotiating with an extremist group links with the group’s level of affiliation with Al Qaeda. If a group starts to distance itself from Al Qaeda, the United States has been more open to negotiations. The Afghan Taliban has shown this attitude in their recent statements. Nevertheless, the talking appears to be at a preliminary stage and much still remains to be seen on how the negotiated solution evolves. The dramatic US-Iran thaw is now a new factor, and how it would impact Afghanistan reconciliation will also be closely watched.

In case of the TTP and other jihadist groups operating in Pakistan, they are widely believed to have ties with Al Qaeda. The example of LeT-linked Mumbai attack and TTP connected suicide bombing at the US base in Khost in 2009, is a case in point. So talking to the TTP is not as simple as assumed and carries international repercussions.

These concerns were apparent when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met President Barack Obama, and stated that Pakistan was still the epicenter of terrorism. While Pakistan seems to have delinked the TTP from India-oriented jihadist groups, Afghan Taliban and Al Qaeda, others do not perceive this to be the case. Moreover, the TTP is on the roll and has made no renouncements of the sorts.

The success of negotiations with the defunct group is also far from guaranteed at this point. One of the reasons for this is that the extremist groups in the AfPak context, and Syria, may indeed have the upper hand. And in the absence of a clear winner, talks become even more complex.

Judging from Obama’s speech, dealing with the future challenges, the role of allies like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and perhaps Iran, will be key to reigning in the different brands of extremists. Meanwhile, the United States will withdraw to the background, while upgrading the capabilities of its partners to take on the charge against the irreconcilables. Obama challenged the UN in his speech on how it would rise to the occasion and deal with the emerging threats it was not designed to deal with; emanating from within states and where the state is too ‘fragile or failing’ to deal with them. It appears Pakistan’s “war on terror,” and that of the United States, is far from over.

PoliTact is a Washington DC-based futurist advisory firm ( and developing multidimensional insights into increasingly linked and asymmetric global political, security, and economic realities.

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