This past Tuesday, President Barack Obama delivered his final speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Though he tried to sound optimistic, he couldn’t help but strike a rueful tone. Gone was the global media darling who electrified world leaders in 2009—that Obama was “determined to act boldly and collectively on behalf of justice and prosperity at home and abroad.” The graying, deliberate Obama of 2016 could offer only limited aspirations of a “course correction” in world politics, while pondering why cycles of conflict and suffering persisted. Though the president advocated for the “hard work of diplomacy” in places like Syria, he also elaborated on one of his recent, common refrains, cautioning that in the Middle East “no external power is going to be able to force different religious communities or ethnic communities to co-exist for long.” Across the region, “we have to insist that all parties recognize a common humanity and that nations end proxy wars that fuel disorder,” Obama said.
A day later, the U.S. Senate held a rare debate on the sale of arms destined for another war in the Middle East. The deal, for $1.15 billion in weaponry to Saudi Arabia, including over 150 Abrams tanks, is a drop in a bucket: more than $100 billion in arms sales to the kingdom have already been approved by the Obama administration. But a year and a half into the kingdom’s relentless war in Yemen, opponents of the new sale see it as an outright affirmation of Washington’s involvement in a deadly, strategically incoherent war that the White House has kept largely quiet about. What’s more, it is at odds with Obama’s apparent distaste for regional proxy wars.