The Cooling Effect: Obama and Gaddafi Take on the UN

Despite its occasional excitement, the political arena often coasts at a median altitude of boring. How many Americans actually know what a public option is? Or who Max Baucus is? They have lives to live and mouths to feed, plus Angelina Jolie is a lot more interesting than Nancy Pelosi. Add to this the stultifying atmosphere of a UN summit, and you are left with seriously high levels of ennui.

This year, however, the UN summit defied all predictions and actually became exciting, thanks to the stimulating presence of Muammar el-Qaddafi. Qaddafi is the autocratic leader of Libya who addressed the United Nations two weeks ago for the first time in his 40 years of authoritarian rule. After that much time spent on the sidelines, Qaddafi had a lot to say. He actually had an hour and 30 minutes worth of thoughts to share, but, again, four decades is a long time to wait.

Due credit for this performance should go to the UN, which made the dubious decision to invite Qaddafi in the first place despite his reputation for erratic behavior. For instance, he regularly travels around with a large tent that serves as his living quarters when on the road; during the UN summit, he tried to pitch the tent in New Jersey. His children are interesting, too; recently, Swiss police arrested Qaddafi’s son, Hannibal, and his wife at a Geneva hotel for beating two servants with a coat hanger and belt. (All of which goes a long way towards explaining Qaddafi’s recommendation to the UN that Switzerland be officially dismembered as a nation state.)

True to his checkered history, Qaddafi did not disappoint when it came to the speech itself. He touched on a dazzlingly wide array of topics, including his suspicions, which presumably have been simmering since 1963 (or at least since he decided to steal the conspiracy theorist crown away from Oliver Stone), that Israel was the true culprit in John F. Kennedy’s assassination. At one point, when discussing the UN’s response to Somali pirates, he turned introspective, ruminating aloud to the assembled dignitaries, “We are all pirates.” He punctuated these musings with accusations concerning the UN Security Council’s legitimacy and, of course, the suggestion to destroy Switzerland. Nearly the only person he did say nice things about was Barack Obama, whom he repeatedly, and somewhat mystifyingly, referred to as “my son.”

The next day, The New York Times ran a picture of Qaddafi speaking; behind him, the president of the general assembly, who happens to be a Libyan, had his head in his hands. It must be hard to literally have to watch your country’s credibility hit rock bottom in only 90 minutes.

However, grateful as I am for Qaddafi’s performance, this article is not simply a heartfelt thank-you to the Libyan leader for making the UN more interesting. It is also a thank-you to Barack Obama, whose decidedly non-dramatic tendencies are becoming more and more of a boon on the international stage. Qaddafi and his fellow autocrats Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hugo Chavez have always been relatively ridiculous figures, but during the tumultuous Bush years, it was easier to get away with being a world leader of questionable mental stability. After all, W. justified most of his policies with hyperbolic emotional appeals (Russian President Putin was “a good guy” because Bush “peered into his soul,” and the real purpose of state-building in Iraq was to promote world freedom), so why couldn’t the rest of the world do the same? If George Bush could tag countries as an axis of evil, then surely Hugo Chavez was justified in labeling the United States as imperialist. Never mind that Chavez was clamping down on the Venezuelan media or that Ahmadinejad ominously denied the existence of homosexuality in Iran; as long as they threw belligerent emotional punches, no standards need be applied.

With Obama in office, the temperature of the world has changed. Hot emotionalism has given way to cooler speech. The administration may be vague in explaining the logic behind its domestic policies, but internationally, Obama and his advisors are evoking a clear sense of purpose backed by reasonable justifications for the United States’ actions. A case in point is Obama’s handling of Iran. Currently—thanks to the administration’s cleverly timed revelation of the existence of an Iranian nuclear enrichment plant hidden underneath the city of Qom—just about everyone thinks that Iran is aiming to build a nuclear weapon. Still, Obama is not invoking the imminent collapse of Western civilization. There are no military strikes being mulled over, at least not publicly. He is collecting his allies on the UN Security Council—France and England—and by a mix of moral pressure and quid pro quos, he is bringing the other two members—China and Russia—behind enforcing tougher sanctions on the Iranian regime. The West is being reasonable, which leaves the onus on the Iranians. The whole process has a feeling of measured implacability to it.

This is not to say that the administration is doing everything right, or that there are not problems lurking on the fringes of otherwise smart policy moves. (Most obviously, there is the problem of U.S.-Russia relations. We need the Russians’ cooperation for Iran and Afghanistan, but Obama would do well to bear in mind that Vladimir Putin is showing disturbing tendencies to relive the Cold War.) Overall, though, Obama’s cooling effect is a welcome relief with tangible benefits at home and abroad. Watching Qaddafi rant is fun, but at the end of the day, it is more comforting to know that the American President has once again enshrined reason and deliberative action as cornerstones for international relations.

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