Last week President Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly, which he has done five times before. He spoke of a “network of death” and the “cancer of violent extremism” in the Middle East and said that “the only language understood by killers like this is the language of force” while promising to lead a coalition to find a military solution to the challenge of ISIS. The President also had sharp words for Russia, describing it as a “bully” and rejecting its “vision of the world in which might makes right.”
Observers have noted that the UN speech represents a dramatic change in the President’s tone and focus. A National Journal article compares the six UN speeches and shows a President who has been transformed from a believer in “hope” and “change” and a world in which everyone shares a common interest in peace to a man who realizes that there are bad people in the world, that they want to do evil things, and that the only way they can be thwarted is by deeds, not words. Optimism — about relations with Russia, about common values and shared dreams, about an inexorable arc of progress toward a rosy future — has been replaced by a recognition that the world right now may be teetering on the brink.
Only two years ago, President Obama mocked Mitt Romney’s realpolitick view of the world and America’s role — I thought an unseemly low point for the President in this regard came during a debate discussion about Russia in which he sarcastically stated that the 1980s had called and wanted its foreign policy back — but now the President has come around to largely adopt Romney’s position, and to use language that is reminiscent of President George W. Bush. He probably won’t acknowledge that fact, but at least he now recognizes the threats we face and is resolved to do something about them.
Conservatives may criticize the President for being late to the game and for failing to more quickly recognize and respond to the threats posed by ISIS, Russia, and other bad actors on the world stage. That’s fair, I suppose, but I think most of us learn from experience and modify our views of the world as we go through life. President Obama also is learning the lessons taught by the School of Hard Knocks. As we all know, such lessons can painful, but we can hope in this instance that they are lessons that are well-learned.