Voice

He's only the president of the United States...

Shortly after 10 a.m. this morning, Barack Obama delivered an address to the General Assembly of the United Nations that the world has waited decades to hear. Other presidents have offered many similar policy prescriptions. Others have spoken of the desire to be better partners within the international community. Others have singled out the challenges identified by Obama. Others have even delivered addresses with similar amounts of elan and periodic power.

But taken as a whole, the Obama address was as close in temperament and priorities to what might be considered the mainstream views of the international community as any delivered by an American president in recent memory. It was clear Obama is a true believer in a central role for the U.N. and the importance of strengthening it as an institution. He is a committed multilateralist. He seems to genuinely seek partnerships and solutions that lie within the bounds and among the original objectives of international law. He was strong and yet he conveyed a sense of openness to multiple views. He identified specific American interests and reiterated they are his foremost priorities but he also sent a message that he would advance them in a way that was sensitive to international concerns.

More than any president in my memory, he seemed to embrace ... and indeed embody ... the idea of the "human community" of which Roosevelt spoke and to which Obama referred this morning.

It is easy to note that many of his goals -- from bringing peace to the Middle East to taking effective steps to combat climate change, from shepherding the world economy back to health in ways that truly creates new opportunities for all to reducing the world's stockpiles of nuclear weapons -- are just aspirations at the moment. But it is also only fair to observe that he and his administration have been active in their pursuit of each such goal after only 9 months in office.

No, pay attention citizens of earth, if history is any indicator, this is probably about as good as you are going to get out of an American president.

Consequently, now would probably be a good time to heed Obama's core message:

Make no mistake: this cannot solely be America's endeavor. Those who used to chastise America for acting alone in the world cannot now stand by and wait for America to solve the world's problems alone.

Translation: "You may like what you are hearing from me today, but I am only the President of the United States. While it's not a bad job and I am almost certainly the most powerful man in the world because I lead what is the most powerful country in the world, we're not going to get anywhere unless you see my limits as well as my capabilities."

On the one hand, this all means Obama leads just one country and if the world wants America to be a partner rather than a hegemon, then it's going to have to start pulling its own weight. 

In addition, however, my point about his "only" being president carries another implicit message that might be lost on many of those who were sitting in the U.N. today or watching around the world. While Barack Obama may have looked statesmanlike at the U.N. podium today and while his rhetoric soared, he is still just an employee of the American people who works in a system of robust checks and balances. (Which is just a nice way of saying he has a Congressional albatross around his neck, a screwed up political climate and a skittish constituency that is ill-informed on many vital international issues.)

On a wide range of the issues he discussed today -- from global economic policy to climate, from arms controls to the role of the U.N. itself -- Obama can lead but he cannot easily make his country follow him any more than he can make the world line up behind him just because he wishes they would.  Indeed, the very fact that his views align with the rest of the world on key issues may make them anathema to many Americans. 

As a consequence, he will need the international community to help him at home as much as they seek America's help with their issues. In short: Without some early international wins, the world may see the promise of this new era in foreign policy fade quickly away.    

This is a hard lesson for foreign leaders to grasp. I have been in meetings in which they requested the United States "make" the Congress do one thing or another. Some simply can't or won't understand how our system works ... or how dysfunctional it is. 

It has even been a hard lesson for Obama himself to grasp. I recently asked a very senior White House official, a long-time unabashed Obama loyalist, what the lesson has been toughest to learn since coming to the White House from the campaign. The individual thought for a moment and said, "Well, he was out of Washington for almost two years while he was campaigning. I think coming to grips with the culture of this town and how hard it is to change it has been the biggest surprise for [Obama]." 

If it has been that hard for a guy as savvy as Obama to come to grips with, it is easy to imagine how hard it is for the rest of the world. But those who were stirred by Obama's words today really need to understand it ... and to understand that if they don't work with Obama to help fulfill some of those areas of common vision ... they are not likely to find a better partner in the White House for some time to come.

Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

David Rothkopf

The day of the locos...

Yes, "Morning Joe" thought the hot story out of the Venice Film Festival was the footage of an exuberant gay Italian man stripping down and begging for a kiss from George Clooney. But they missed the bigger story. Perhaps they were too dazzled by the flashbulbs or their reporter was unable to make his way through the fawning, screeching crowds of fans. But there, upstaging the canals and the pigeons of St. Marks was Hollywood's newest hunk, Hugo Chavez. And just like Clooney, he had his retinue of crazed admirers. In Chavez's case however, the heavy-breathing was coming from director Oliver Stone, who was in town to promote his latest labor of love, a valentine to Chavez called "South of the Border." 

And you thought George W. Bush was Yale's most embarrassing graduate... 

This new film -- which is not, incidentally, named after the South Carolina roadside tourist trap of the same name -- builds on Stone's unwitting reputation as a master of historical fiction. Whereas some filmmakers are known for their camera work or story-telling, Stone is best known for his inability to separate fact from fairy-tale. First, came JFK, which provided the same view of the Kennedy assassination you would get after huffing glue while watching the Zapruder film. Other fantasies made their way into his movies on Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. Appropriately, therefore, the best of all summaries of his worldview came in the description of his "single plane theory" of the 9/11 attacks as reported by the Onion. (Given Stone's track record, the fact that it is completely made up is precisely the reason it should be treated as the truth.) 

Here's an excerpt of Time's review of the film:

Every step of the way, Stone is by, and on, on the President's side. He raises no tough issues, some of which are summarized in Amnesty International's 2009 report on Venezuela: "Attacks on journalists were widespread. Human-rights defenders continued to suffer harassment. Prison conditions provoked hunger strikes in facilities across the country." Referring to the 2006 election in which Chávez won a third term, Stone tells viewers that "90% of the media was opposed to him," and yet he prevailed. "There is a lesson to be learned," Stone says. Yes: support the man in power, or your newspaper, radio station or TV network may be in jeopardy.

According to Variety, Stone said, ""You can't get a fair hearing for Chavez. It's an outrageous caricature they've drawn of him in the Western press."

Yes. Outrageous. Let's just take a few items of Chavez news from around the world that have crossed the wires in just the past couple days and draw our own conclusions, shall we?

Let's start with the mildly comic. In Belarus, Chavez met with President Alexander Lukashenko (the White Russian version of a caudillo). There, according to AFP:

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on Wednesday boasted of his good ties with fellow Western critic Belarus, even suggesting the two countries could become part of a Soviet-style union.

Chavez held talks in Minsk with his Belarussian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko marked by a chummy bonhomie that saw the pair also propose they travel the length and breadth of Venezuela in the near future.

"We need to create a new union of republics," Chavez told Lukashenko, according to a statement from the Belarussian presidency.

Today, in moves that are not so laughable, Chavez will meet with Russian officials where he is expected to discuss further arms sales, military cooperation and energy deals.

More ominously, today Chavez also stirred up a torrent of controversy when he accused Israel of genocide.

The question is not whether the Israelis want to exterminate the Palestinians. They're doing it openly," Chavez said in an interview with Le Figaro published on Wednesday.

The Venezuelan president, who has just completed a tour of Middle Eastern and Arab countries, brushed aside Israeli assertions that its attack on Gaza was a response to rocket fire from Islamist group Hamas which rules the coastal enclave.

"What was it if not genocide? ... The Israelis were looking for an excuse to exterminate the Palestinians," Chavez said, adding that sanctions should have been slapped on Israel.

While perhaps Stone would agree with these rants (and while he might disagree with Elliott Abrams's excellent piece in yesterday's Washington Post taking former President Jimmy Carter to task for his similarly one-sided, overstated and distorted views), his past record of using and abusing the truth like other directors do starlets suggests that he might not dig far enough into the facts to recognize that his film's hero is deeply in bed with some of the very worst of the Middle East's bad actors. 

Fortunately for the rest of us, there is the very thoughtful and profoundly disturbing column by Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau in yesterday's Wall Street Journal detailing a growing case that Chavez and the Iranians are up to the worst kind of no good in this neighborhood. (Connecting the dots between Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, and Chavez's views is very easy when you do a little more research than Stone did.) Morgenthau writes:

Why is Hugo Chávez willing to open up his country to a foreign nation with little shared history or culture? I believe it is because his regime is bent on becoming a regional power, and is fanatical in its approach to dealing with the U.S. The diplomatic overture of President Barack Obama in shaking Mr. Chávez's hand in April at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago is no reason to assume the threat has diminished. In fact, with the groundwork laid years ago, we are entering a period where the fruits of the Iran-Venezuela bond will begin to ripen.

That means two of the world's most dangerous regimes, the self-described "axis of unity," will be acting together in our backyard on the development of nuclear and missile technology. And it seems that terrorist groups have found the perfect operating ground for training and planning, and financing their activities through narco-trafficking.

His theory is supported not only by the evidence outlined in his article but also by statements earlier this week that Chavez intended to provide oil to Iran in the event the world's leading powers attempt to impose an embargo on the country should it continue to pursue its nuclear weapons ambitions. The Iranian intransigence could put the U.S. on a collision course not only with Tehran but with suppliers like Chavez -- a fact which could delay his getting a star on Hollywood's walk of fame indefinitely as well as causing a real foreign policy headache for the Obama administration.

However, there are always two sides to every story (at least ... around the dinner table in my house growing up there were typically many more than that). And as dark as is the picture of Iranian-Venezuelan cooperation painted by Morgenthau there will always be someone who sees the happy Hollywood ending to such collaborations. And of course, for that we can always turn to Stone. Because according to The Guardian, Chavez's Leni Riefenstahl is currently planning as an encore "an interview film with Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad."

Update: We just heard from Willie Geist of "Morning Joe" who noted that they did their takedown of Chavez and Stone earlier this week. I should have known that Geist, who has one of television's best B.S. detectors and, even rarer, a great sense of humor, would never have let this story slip through the cracks.

FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images