The U.N. General Assembly: 5 Political Potholes for Obama

Tricky relations with an emerging Arab public, Netanyahu's shaming rhetoric and a growing China-Japan spat. What's to love about the U.N. for a President whose appointment with his electorate is just weeks away?

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Richard Drew / AP

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addresses the General Assembly on Sept. 24, 2012

Blink and you may miss President Barack Obama’s appearance at the annual U.N. General Assembly this week. The President plans to make the briefest visit by a U.S. President in recent memory at the annual diplomatic shindig, holding the quick chat required by tradition with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon before delivering his own address and then hightailing it across town to address the Clinton Global Forum before leaving town altogether. With campaign duties calling, and more pitfalls than prospects on the global scene right now, the President will skip the customary bilateral meetings on the General Assembly sidelines, leaving the likes of France’s President François Hollande feeling a little, well, snubbed. And then there’s Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who arrives in New York City on Thursday, with unnamed officials of his government having told the Israeli media that Obama turned down a request for a meeting. The White House denies that claim, but don’t expect Netanyahu — some of whose previous remarks on Iran’s nuclear program are being used in attack ads against Obama running in Florida — to make life easy for the President among those voters who might take their cue from the Israeli leader come November.

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The U.S. presidential election, now just five weeks away, will likely shape Obama’s own address, making it more likely to be a campaign speech rather than a form of diplomatic engagement. Expect to hear strong words on Iran’s nuclear defiance and some righteous scolding of Russia and China for using their veto power to block Security Council action on Syria. The President will likely reaffirm his commitment to Israel’s security, and no one ought be surprised if he repeats last year’s rebuke of the Palestinians for once again seeking U.N. recognition of their statehood claim. But a trickier challenge arises for Obama in honing a message on the recent surge in anti-American radicalism on display in the protest spurred by the Islam-bashing film made in California. That firestorm has been seized on by Obama’s Republican challengers to question his stewardship of U.S. foreign policy. And the delicate dance required in responding to the protests is just one of five key challenges facing the President. Here they are:

1. Syria’s Stubborn Stalemate

The U.N.’s original raison d’être is the prevention of war, which makes Syria’s steadily mounting death toll, and the danger that its civil war could trigger a regionwide conflagration, the top security issue facing this year’s General Assembly. But the U.N. has been unable to stop the bloodletting, because key member states continue to pursue their geopolitical goals through opposite sides of the conflict.

Obama and the leaders of France, Britain and even Saudi Arabia may castigate Russia and China for blocking Security Council action, but those countries feel just as righteous in using their veto power to deny Western powers a legal basis to reprise the Libya intervention that ousted the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. When Secretary-General Ban demands that all member states stop weapons entering Syria, the Western powers focus on Russian and Iranian arms shipments to the regime, while Moscow, Beijing and others focus on the alleged involvement of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey in covertly arming the rebels. Ban has warned that there’s no military solution to be had in Syria and urged international players to persuade Syria’s regime and its rebels to embrace that reality. But absent any consensus among the big powers, the main Syria action at the General Assembly will be on the sidelines — and may not involve the Obama Administration.

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The Friends of Syria group comprising Western and Arab backers of the rebellion are scheduled to meet on Friday, but with no change in strategy on the horizon, they’re simply expected to incrementally increase their sanctions against President Bashar Assad’s regime. The more interesting meeting, if it occurs, will be the planned confab of the Syria “contact group” convened last week by Egypt’s new President, Mohamed Morsy, and which includes Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran. The U.S. and its allies have fiercely resisted any discussion on Syria that involves Iran, arguing that Tehran’s direct support of and involvement in the regime’s crackdown makes it part of the problem rather than party to any solution. But Morsy, like Ban, a former U.N. peace envoy, and even Qatar, argues that precisely because of Iran’s support of the regime, its inclusion gives any consensus by the contact group greater traction on the ground. One crucial indicator to watch for, in New York City, is whether Saudi Arabia attends any meeting of that group. The Saudis stayed away from the inaugural session in Cairo last week; if they attend in New York, that could be a sign that a regional solution may be possible, since the regional strategic rivalry between Riyadh and Tehran remains a key element reinforcing the Syrian conflict.

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