The President's main purpose in appearing before the United Nations General Assembly today was to justify the American air campaign against the self-styled Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and to solicit further global support for the overall campaign to destroy the IS. With that came a lot of predictable statements about how Obama's war won't be like Bush's, and how American and Muslim values are perfectly compatible, once you eliminate extremism. I found it more interesting that he felt it necessary to bring up Ukraine again, at a time when Russia's support against the IS would be quite helpful. But if Russia values the Assad dictatorship in Syria so much I suppose the Russians have to stand against the IS no matter what Obama says. That aside, the President's comments on Ukraine showed again that, no matter how he seeks to differentiate himself from George W. Bush and the neocons, as an American he wears a set of blinders very similar to those a Republican president might sport at such a gathering. American and Russian responses to the Maidan uprising, Obama argues, show that the Russians live by the "might makes right" principle, while Americans believe that "right makes might."
Here's how the President described the uprising in Ukraine: "Here are the facts. After the people of Ukraine mobilized popular protests and calls for reform, their corrupt President fled." Obama's assumption, we can infer, is that no one -- not the Russophone Ukrainians in the eastern part of the country who supported the "corrupt" president, nor their Russian sympathizers and sponsors, nor anyone else on Earth -- had a moral right to question the legitimacy of what happened in Kiev. But to put it another way, a mob of hundreds of thousands of people intimidated a weak leader into abandoning his post. Leave aside what the mob or the president stood for. Does this sound like "right makes might" or "might makes right" to you? If it were a million of so Tea Partiers (or Occupiers, to be nonpartisan about it) converging in Washington D.C. and deciding to stay until Obama resigned, the President would certainly see things very differently. No principled argument against his authority or legitimacy would be likely to sway him, while his supporters certainly would see the opposed masses as nothing but a mob. Most Americans -- probably even most Republicans -- would probably agree. Our country has a rule of law, as well as free and fair elections; these are the instruments of accountability for elected leaders. "People power" may be an instrument of democratization, but most liberals would probably say it has no place in an established constitutional democracy. In someplace like Ukraine, however, "people power" is deemed necessary and proper by many American observers. These Americans recognized no "rule of law" in that country that trumped the prerogatives of "people power," because they had decided that Yanukovych was "corrupt" (as he probably was) and, worse -- as Obama prudently omitted to mention -- a stooge of Russia.
Americans reserve for themselves, as opinionated individuals if not as world rulers, the right to decide whether other countries have adequate "rule of law" or when "people power" is justified in toppling governments. I don't think a foreign observer has to be an "authoritarian" or an "elitist" to find both the American attitude and the Ukrainian example, as reaffirmed by Obama today, rather alarming. We shouldn't really go too far to the other side -- there ought to be cases when a "right to revolution" could be recognized universally -- but we should consider the other point of view enough to recognize an inconsistency between the vision of global stability the President preaches and his uncritical endorsement of a form of mob rule wherever he sees fit. When Obama says "right makes might," he certainly doesn't mean that liberal democracy will give Ukraine the power to fend off Russian aggression. He means quite specifically that "bigger nations should not be able to bully smaller ones," Russia being the bully in the Ukraine scenario and that powerful outsiders would be justified, right making might, in punishing the bully. For Obama, "might makes right" really means what most Americans believe, regardless of party: that American-style liberal democracy (in simpler terms, "freedom") always deserves to win and should be helped to win by liberal democrats around the world. His U.N. audience may be excused for seeing little difference, despite his own disclaimers, between Obama and Bush -- but one possible difference might worry them. It was easy for many around the world, and in the U.S., to see Bush's idealist rhetoric as a flimsy veil for the cynical greed of his cronies -- but Obama may really believe all this stuff.