In 2009, President Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. As he himself admitted, the honor wasn’t bestowed on him for much he had yet done, but for what he was expected to do. As a candidate Obama got a lot of grief for promising in his nomination acceptance speech that his presidency would be the moment when the rise of the oceans would slow and the Earth would begin to heal, and the Norwegian Nobel Committee didn’t help by pinning an award on him based on expected ”extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.”
Nearly three years later, the fruits of any strengthened international diplomacy or cooperation between peoples are bitter, if they exist at all. In accepting his party's presidential nomination this time around, Obama focused on how long and hard the journey would be, not on the healing at the end of that journey, and less than 40 days from the election the world looks like it is crashing down around him.
At the United Nations General Assembly three Septembers ago, Obama came with the “deeply held belief that in the year 2009—more than at any point in human history—the interests of nations and peoples are shared.” He then outlined steps he was taking to restore what he saw as diminished international faith in the United States; he had already prohibited the use of torture, he noted, had ordered Guantanamo Bay shut down, and was “doing the hard work of forging a framework to combat extremism within the rule of law.”
This past week the president addressed the U.N. General Assembly from a much less lofty position. Protests had erupted outside American embassies across the Muslim world on the 11th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. The first protests, like the ones in Jakarta, made no mention of any anti-Islamic film as impetus, only U.S. foreign policy. By the time protests hit Cairo, egged on apparently by the brother of Al Qaeda’s new leader, they were pegged to Innocence of Muslims, an anti-Islamic film that first appeared on the Internet months earlier. Perceived fury over the film was apparently used as cover to execute a terrorist operation targeting the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and killing America’s ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens. In full election mode, President Obama’s response was to lay all blame for anti-American fervor on the film, even as reports come out this week that his administration identified the Benghazi incident as a terrorist attack within 24 hours.
The White House’s insistence on blaming the anti-American uproar on a film, despite Libya’s insistence otherwise, has led the administration down a bizarre road. World leaders applauded the president this year not for promising to close Guantanamo or restore the rule of law, but for his resolve to defend the right of all Americans to call him “awful things every day.” Nevertheless, the president’s defense of free speech did not quite extend to the right to blaspheme.
Likewise, Obama’s nod to “the rule of law and due process that guarantees the rights of all people” could only be lip service, given that he's now three years into a term that has seen the detention center at Guantanamo remain open and the ramping up of a drone war that may have killed as many as 900 civilians since 2004 (mostly since 2009). Among those killed was the cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen, and his teenage son, who was collateral damage. Al-Awlaki was accused of having terrorist connections with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, may also have been a potential informant for the FBI and was separately held in custody by them before being let go. He had been indicted for no crime at the time of his death.
Meanwhile, the immediate political aftermath of the Benghazi attack focused not on the Obama administration’s bungling of the narrative and security failure, but on Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s ill-timed reaction, which came before news of the ambassador’s murder was known, and which blamed Obama for apologizing for American values instead of protecting Americans first.
The upcoming presidential debates look to be equally depressing. The first debate to focus on foreign policy will occur on October 22, and unfortunately for voters interested in real change, few functional differences between the two candidates are likely to appear. Both sides remain committed to maintaining America's bloody and costly foreign entanglements. Voters looking for hope and change in the foreign policy realm won't find it this year on either major party ticket.