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.

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.

4. China and Japan Square Off

China and Japan have long been the sort of U.N. member states that don’t like to talk about themselves. Instead, they’ve reliably offered speeches long on uncontroversial multilateral platitudes on the issues of the day — the sort of speeches that might as well be read into the record for all the interest they arouse in news editors and producers. This year may be different: in a time-honored symptom of economic anxiety, there’s been a fierce upsurge of nationalist fervor in both Tokyo and Beijing over rival claims to a splatter of uninhabited islets called the Diaoyu by China and the Senkaku by Japan. With Japan facing an election and China in the throes of its complicated once-a-decade leadership transition, neither side is showing any inclination to back down, instead allowing populist grandstanding in both countries to escalate.

(PHOTOS: Anti-Japan Protests Hit China’s Capital)

As my colleague Hannah Beech recently noted, the showdown is a headache for the Obama Administration:

Last year, President Barack Obama pledged to pivot U.S. foreign policy toward Asia, a shift designed to recognize the economic ascendancy of the world’s most populous continent. But the move was also viewed as an effort to contain a rising — and a more militarily assertive — China. During the Secretary of Defense’s visit to Japan, he unveiled plans for the two countries to develop a second missile-defense system for the island nation, which worries about a threat from a nuclear North Korea backed by the Chinese. The announcement of this joint U.S.-Japan radar shield naturally didn’t please Beijing.

At the start of his Asia trip, Panetta warned of how quickly regional territorial tensions could blaze out of control. (China is also sparring with maritime neighbors, like Vietnam and the Philippines, over disputed shoals and islands in the South China Sea.) “A misjudgment on one side or the other could result in violence, and could result in conflict,” Panetta said. By the time he arrived in Beijing, the U.S. Secretary of Defense was urging cooler heads to prevail: “With respect to these current tensions, we are urging calm and restraint by all sides and encourage them to maintain open channels of communication in order to resolve these disputes diplomatically and peacefully.”

But there’s no sign of tensions abating as world leaders head to New York: Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and the Chinese leadership have signaled their intention to take the dispute to the U.N. this week. Although Washington’s Asia “pivot” is all about containing Chinese ambitions, the Obama Administration is unlikely to welcome being drawn into a confrontation with Beijing at a moment when so many other foreign policy priorities, such as Iran and Syria as well as economic and financial concerns, demand that the U.S. seek a more cooperative relationship with China.

5. Ignoring the Perils of Climate Change

In the popular HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones, the phrase “winter is coming” is often invoked to signal a looming climate shift that will profoundly alter the security of a human realm distracted by its myriad power struggles. In the real world, of course, it’s not winter that’s coming but rather a warming of the planet that will bring with it catastrophic weather patterns that will in turn have a profound impact on global economic well-being and security. But you wouldn’t know that watching events at the U.N. this week.

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Boilerplate declarations on the need to tackle climate change have been de rigueur in U.N. speeches for the past decade, of course. But agreement on meaningful international action to curb the output of carbon gases is hopelessly stalled as major industrialized countries and emerging economies find their economic woes reinforcing a long-standing reluctance to agree to the terms of their interlocutors on how the burden of carbon cuts should be shared. The only speakers who’ll address the issue with passionate urgency in New York this week are the leaders of the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Tuvalu and other tiny Pacific island nations whose very survival is threatened by rising sea levels and changing weather patterns. But as compelling as their pleas may be, they simply don’t carry any sort of geopolitical leverage. Still, President Obama and other leaders of major industrialized powers know the science and they’ve seen the statistics; they can’t be unaware of the dramatic shifts in the climate already under way and their potentially catastrophic effects on global security and power relations — even if it’s politically as inconvenient as ever, if not more so, to begin doing what has to be done.

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