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

2. America and the Free Arab Public: An Awkward Conversation

Despite the global venue, President Obama’s primary audience will be a U.S. electorate traumatized by the recent killing of four U.S. diplomats in Libya. Republican critics cite that debacle as evidence that the Administration has taken an overly optimistic view of the consequences of Arab democracy and the overthrow of U.S.-backed dictators. Obama’s readiness to engage with the democratically elected Islamist governments in Egypt and Tunisia is being cast as naiveté by Washington hawks. Campaign concerns require Obama to talk tough to the Arab world and demand that it tackle extremism, even if strategic realities demand a more nuanced approach.

A year ago, it was left to the likes of President Obama to talk about the promise of the Arab rebellion at the General Assembly; this year, democratically elected leaders of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt will speak for themselves. And as President Morsy made clear in a New York Times interview published on Sunday, those Arab leaders are coming to the U.N. not as supplicants but as confident representatives of an Arabic public opinion long suppressed by Western-friendly dictators. They want ties with the West but on terms quite different from those that worked for the likes of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, and they are ready to challenge the U.S. foreign policy in the region. Morsy, leader of the country long regarded as the strategic lynchpin of the region, has left no doubt about his intention to pursue a genuinely independent foreign policy: his recent visit to the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran irked the U.S. and Israel, but the speech he delivered there, in which he castigated Iran over its support for Syria’s Assad regime, annoyed his hosts.

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While Obama and other Western leaders will need to respond to the wave of often deadly protests against an Islam-bashing propaganda film privately produced in California, Morsy and other Arab and Muslim leaders are just as keen to have that conversation — although not to be scolded over the extremists in their midst. Instead, they’re coordinating, through the Organization of the Islamic Conference, to demand that the U.N. enact a kind of global blasphemy law outlawing hurtful attacks on their religion and the beliefs of others. That’s hardly a prospect the liberal industrialized states are likely to entertain, but it’s symbolic of the fact that many Muslim governments want to push back on the protest issue by highlighting long-standing grievances with U.S. policies in the Middle East. That’s not a conversation that Obama will see much benefit in even starting just five weeks ahead of the election.

3. Bibi vs. Ahmadinejad, Bibi vs. Abbas

Last year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a speech so belligerent on Iran and so derisive of the Arab rebellions — and, indeed, of the U.N. itself — that it was unlikely to have convinced anyone outside of his own delegation. But convincing the international community is not the goal of Netanyahu’s speeches warning of a new Holocaust ostensibly taking shape in Iran while a feckless international community turns away; his target audience was the U.S. electorate.

Netanyahu has spent the interceding year sounding many of the same themes, mostly directed at the Obama Administration (which, according to Israeli journalists, is what he means by “international community”) and threatening unilateral military action. But on both counts, lately, he’s run into trouble, having isolated himself not only from all of Israel’s key foreign allies with his threats to bomb Iran but also from his country’s military and security establishment. He’s also run into some uncharacteristically blunt criticism, both at home and from longtime Israel supporters in Washington, for interfering in U.S. domestic politics. While Netanyahu is likely to keep the pressure on Western powers over Iran, mindful of the strengthening possibility that Obama will be re-elected, he may choose to adopt a more measured tone this time around.

Apocalyptic talk about Iran, of course, has a way of keeping any discussion about the Palestinians off the agenda. Indeed, Netanyahu’s critics in the Israeli security establishment, as well as Israel’s allies in Europe, have accused the Prime Minister of showing no serious intent to move forward any peace process with the Palestinians. No one would agree more than Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is blamed by Netanyahu for the absence of progress on negotiations. Abbas may be facing the beginnings of an Arab Spring–type rebellion that could well sweep away his authoritarian Administration, which was designed as the advance guard of a Palestinian state but has effectively become an arm of the status quo.

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Abbas has been threatening to force the Palestinian issue back on the agenda by seeking General Assembly recognition of a Palestinian State as a nonmember state, a status equivalent to that of the Vatican. Unlike in the Security Council, the U.S. holds no veto power in the General Assembly. In the latter, the Palestinians would likely win overwhelming support. But Washington managed to thwart Abbas last year when he approached the Security Council for recognition of statehood, through a combination of threats to withhold economic and diplomatic support for the Authority and to veto any affirmative resolution. Electoral concerns may incline Obama to slap down the Palestinians and insist they return to a negotiating table where Abbas has long ago concluded Israel isn’t willing to offer the minimum he needs, but sentiment in the Arab world right now would take that as confirmation of the U.S. animus toward Muslim interests claimed by anti-American propagandists.

If Abbas decides to swing for his political legacy by declaring independence from a U.S. policy that appears unlikely for the foreseeable future to deliver Palestinian freedom, he could make life difficult for Obama — and force Netanyahu onto the defensive. But if he confines himself to a few symbolic gestures, Netanyahu will concentrate his fire on Iran, whose President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad makes his own valedictory address in his favorite forum on Wednesday. Don’t expect him to discuss Syria, although he may dwell on issues like Israel’s opposition to the Arab call for a convention on pursuing a nuclear-free Middle East and also on the apparent intention of the Obama Administration to revoke the terrorist designation of the Iranian opposition group Mujahedin e-Khalq as signs of Western hypocrisy. Having Ahmadinejad posturing defiantly in New York is exactly the sort of image Obama’s domestic critics will seize on to fashion new pre-election attacks.

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