September 28, 2015 | Forbes
The U.N.’s Parade of Dictators
Founded in 1945 to promote global peace, human dignity and freedom, the United Nations is celebrating its 70th anniversary — with a parade of dictators. The ceremonies will peak on Monday, at U.N. headquarters in New York, when the General Assembly opens its annual debate with a lineup starring the presidents of such notorious tyrannies as China, Russia, Iran and Cuba.
For good measure, Monday’s opening of the U.N. general debate will also feature the despots who bestride such countries as Belarus, Turkmenistan, Zimbabwe, Kazakhstan, Qatar, Ethiopia and Gabon. They will also be speaking on day one, as part of what the State Department describes as “the largest gathering of heads of state ever assembled.”
To be fair, the opening day of the debate will also feature assorted democratic leaders, including Obama, who as president of the host country gets one of the earliest speaking slots. As for dictatorships in general, they are hardly a new feature of the U.N., where one of the founding states was Stalin’s Soviet Union. Today, according to the rankings of Washington-based Freedom House, more than half the U.N.‘s 193 member states are only partly free, or not free at all. During the entire general debate, a six-day marathon of speeches, from Sept. 28 – Oct. 3, all members get a 15-minute turn (though some take more) on the main stage.
What’s historic, however, is the procession of high-profile despots planning to appear in person in Monday’s starting lineup, including Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping and Cuba’s Raul Castro. These are rulers who usually send their ministers to the U.N.’s annual opening. This year they are coming in person. In their midst, making his third appearance at the U.N. general debate, comes Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, clutching the freshly minted Iran nuclear deal and fronting as head of state for Tehran’s terror-sponsoring tyranny run by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Against the golden backdrop of the U.N. General Assembly chamber, this gathering may count as an anniversary party, complete with memorable photo-ops. In reality, it amounts to a grim indictment of the U.N., and a warning of rising dangers in the real world. Long gone is whatever promise surrounded the U.N. in its early 1990s incarnation, immediately after the end of the Cold War. Back then, with great swathes of the world newly freed from the Soviet grip, the U.N. — itself liberated from the vice of Soviet diplomacy — was widely seen as a vehicle retooled for securing peace and spreading freedom.
Today, the U.N. is increasingly becoming a clubhouse for a rising new axis of dictators. In its menu of privileges for member states, the U.N. does not distinguish between democracies and dictatorships. For the dictatorships, this moral blindness comes as a boon they are delighted to exploit. Thus has Iran, even while under U.N. sanctions, won seats on the governing boards of such major agencies as UNICEF and the U.N. Development Program. Thus is Saudi Arabia not only elected by its fellow U.N. members to the Human Rights Council, but picked to chair a panel that vets the Council’s special rapporteurs.
Traditionally, the bulwark against such tyrannies has been the United States. But Obama, in his first presidential speech to the U.N. General Assembly, back in 2009, dispensed with that tradition. Exhorting all U.N. member states to collectively embrace a shared destiny, he declared old arguments and alignments to be “irrelevant,” saying “No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed. No balance of power among nations will hold.”
These were statements heard not only by Americans who believe in liberty and justice for all, but by tyrants who harbor no such respect for these rights. Instead of dropping old arguments, especially on matters pitting tyranny against freedom, they prefer to win them. The signal Obama sent to despotic regimes ensconced in capitals from Moscow to Beijing, from Tehran to Pyongyang, from Caracas to Cuba, was that for despots, these were times of opportunity. America was abdicating its leadership of the Free World.
Not that Obama gave up international leadership altogether. Instead, in the name of engagement, he led the way in appeasing and rewarding the dictatorships whose rulers will share the U.N. spotlight with him on Monday in New York.
To Russia, fresh from its predatory 2008 foray into the neighboring country of Georgia, Obama offered a 2009 “reset,” sweetened by U.S. abrogation of its commitment to a missile defense shield for Eastern Europe. In 2012, Obama was caught on a live microphone sending Putin a promise of “more flexibility” after the U.S. presidential election.
Then came Obama’s 2013 erasure of his own “red line” in Syria, in deference to Russia’s management of the Assad regime and its chemical weapons. That trajectory is now translating into renewed Russian reach into the Middle East, and a growing Russian military presence in Syria. Small wonder that in 2014 Putin judged, correctly, that he could get away with the project of carving up Ukraine, starting with the wholesale annexation of Crimea.
Toward Asia, Obama announced a “pivot,” read by many as a plan to counter a militarizing and restive China. Obama’s administration has since scaled back that pivot to a “rebalancing.” Even that, Obama has been undercutting — de-balancing the rebalance — by gutting the U.S. military, including the naval forces required to maintain a presence in the Far East.
China — a dictatorship that imprisons its own Nobel Peace laureate, dissident Liu Xiaobo — has been building up its military and bullying its neighbors. China has served as a major conduit for illicit wares for the nuclear and missile programs of Iran and North Korea. And China’s cyberespionage has become a growing concern for both American private business and the U.S. government. In this climate, Obama’s Friday night hosting of a state dinner in honor of China’s President Xi can be spun by the White House as engagement. It will almost certainly be read by Beijing as yet another sign of U.S. weakness and appeasement.
Toward Iran, Obama began in 2009 by extending his hand. When Tehran’s brutal theocracy crushed massive domestic protests that same year by beating, shooting and jailing its own people, Obama contented himself with “bearing witness.” Still seeking engagement, Obama finally bull-dozed the way to the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan Action, agreed this July between Iran and the U.S., France, Britain, Russia, China and Germany, and adopted less than a week later, at U.S. behest, by the U.N. Security Council.
This deal is a gift to Iran, complete with sunset clauses, sanctions relief ultimately worth hundreds of billions, secret side deals for self inspection, a green light for continued uranium enrichment, and help with modern nuclear technology, including methods for thwarting sabotage. What did the U.S. get? Mainly, this deal delivers an enhanced probability that if — or, more likely, when — Iran breaks out as a nuclear-armed state, Obama need not worry about a 3 A.M. phone call. That nightmare will be reserved for the next U.S. president.
Then there’s Cuba, where since 1959 the Castros — first Fidel with his communist revolution, and now his brother Raul — have spent the past 56 years oppressing and beggaring the general population and making common cause with fellow tyrannies, not least at the United Nations. Last December, Obama decided to normalize U.S. relations with Cuba, arguing that the longstanding U.S. embargo was a failure.
Obama’s remedy was to reward and dignify Cuba’s regime, removing Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, sending Secretary of State John Kerry to re-open the U.S. embassy in Havana (at a ceremony that excluded dissidents) and pursuing expanded ties despite protests from Congress. Meantime, the Castro regime has continued hosting high-level visits from such places as Russia and North Korea, and The Wall Street Journal reported last month that according to human rights groups, “state security arrests have sharply increased.”
Small wonder that all these eminences of the unfree world have seized on the U.N.’s 70th anniversary to come celebrate in New York. Obama, who in 2009 declared that the U.S. was out of business as world sheriff, and invited them to “embrace a new era of engagement,” is now in danger of becoming little more than the opening act, while one after another, these engaged and empowered despots strut the U.N. stage.
Ms. Rosett is journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and heads its Investigative Reporting Project. Follow her on Twitter @CRosett