Obama at the U.N.: Solid on Principles, Vague on Policy

The U.S. President's address to the U.N. General Assembly raised more questions than it answered on the substantial foreign policy challenges in the Middle East

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Craig Ruttle / AP

President Barack Obama smiles as he leaves after addressing the 67th United Nations General Assembly, at U.N. headquarters on Sept. 25, 2012.

U.S. President Barack Obama‘s primary audience, when he addressed the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, was not the gathered heads of state. Instead, he tailored his remarks to a domestic electorate unlikely to vote primarily on the basis of foreign policy but unnerved by the recent upsurge of violent anti-American protest in the Muslim world. Obama’s firm tone and willingness to challenge the emerging leaders in the Arab world to rein in extremism in their countries provided some reassurance at home that he’s keeping his eye on the ball. And his eulogy for slain U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, who in Obama’s speech personified the U.S.’s helping hand, framed his remarks in a domestically popular sense of American virtue. U.S. and foreign audiences will have found much to applaud and little to disagree with in the calls for tolerance, mutual respect and the building of bridges between cultures and nations, to which most of the speech was devoted.

“There are no words that excuse the killing of innocents,” Obama said, referring to the murders of Stevens and three other U.S. personnel. “There is no video that justifies an attack on an embassy. There is no slander that provides an excuse for people to burn a restaurant in Lebanon or destroy a school in Tunis or cause death and destruction in Pakistan.” Nobody in the hall would disagree. Nor would they find any cause for complaint in Obama’s demand that they make the right choice between “the forces that drive us apart and the forces that bring us together” — even though they may differ somewhat over which forces are placed in which column.

(MORE: Five Potholes for Obama at the U.N. General Assembly)

But the response to Obama’s speech, on the whole, was muted. And on the substantial foreign policy challenges in the Middle East — to which he devoted almost his entire address — the speech may have raised more questions than it answered.

Israel and the Palestinians

Perhaps anticipating Wednesday’s address by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy, which is expected to, among other things, take Washington to task for failing to live up to the values proclaimed by Obama regarding Palestinian aspirations, the President began with that issue when turning to specifics:

 Among Israelis and Palestinians, the future must not belong to those who turn their backs on the prospect of peace. Let us leave behind those who thrive on conflict and those who reject the right of Israel to exist. The road is hard, but the destination is clear: a secure, Jewish state of Israel and an independent, prosperous Palestine. Understanding that such a peace must come through a just agreement between the parties, America will walk alongside all who are prepared to make that journey.

(MORE: Why Palestinians Now Are Used to Disappointment)

Such pablum might have easily been culled from any U.S. presidential speech of the past decade and is hardly likely to assuage Arab anger at Obama’s perceived failure to deliver on the promises made in his 2009 Cairo speech to pursue justice for the Palestinians. The consensus in the Arab world, and in much of Europe, is that Israel’s government is responsible for the current impasse on the road to a credible two-state peace. There is no peace process to speak of at the moment, so Obama’s comment that “such a peace must come through a just agreement between the parties” will be read simply as a warning against Palestinians’ seeking U.N. recognition of their statehood claims. It remains unclear whether President Mahmoud Abbas plans to ask the General Assembly for such recognition right now, given the likelihood of a U.S. backlash. But there’s no doubt that if he did, the answer would be a resounding yes. Obama’s comments on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in short, won’t do much to repair the credibility problem that conflict raises for Washington when addressing Arab populations.


Syria is the overwhelming security priority confronting this year’s General Assembly session, with U.N. officials warning of a steadily escalating bloodbath no longer contained within Syria’s borders. But while President Obama demanded the ouster of “a dictator who massacres his own people,” he offered no new ideas for realizing that goal and noted the dangers that could accompany it. “We must remain engaged to assure that what began with citizens demanding their rights does not end in a cycle of sectarian violence,” he warned, vowing to support Syrians who believe in an inclusive democratic vision. The tools? “Sanctions and consequences for those who persecute, and assistance and support for those who work for this common good.”

(MORE: Why a Libya-Style Intervention Is Unlikely)

That, from a policy perspective, means business as usual, a refraining from direct intervention and limited support for opposition forces engaged in what is now a war of attrition. Syria’s neighbors, already experiencing the consequences of that country’s civil war via refugee crises and sectarian tensions, see Washington as settling in for a long-term, grinding conflict that may not see President Bashar Assad fall before sometime next year. But they fear that the more drawn-out the process is, the less likely it is to have a positive outcome, and the greater the prospect for regional chaos. Turkey has called for military intervention involving the U.S. to create a safe haven inside Syria; Qatar is calling more insistently for a no-fly zone to be imposed. Others, such as U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and Egypt’s President Morsy, are urging a political solution and trying to get the U.S. and its allies to accept that such a process would involve Iran, longtime ally of the Assad regime.

Obama’s remarks at the General Assembly essentially dodged all the specifics on Syria; pressure is mounting for him to make some uncomfortable choices.


Obama devoted just two paragraphs of his speech to the much anticipated topic of Iran, on which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been pressing the U.S. to take a tougher line. Obama tied Tehran’s support for Assad and its repression at home to its repeated failure to “demonstrate that its nuclear program is peaceful and to meet its obligations to the United Nations.”

What followed was a delicate dance, with Obama affirming the U.S.’s desire for a diplomatic solution and its respect for the “right of nations to access peaceful nuclear power” but also warning that the time available for diplomacy “is not unlimited.” Although he declined to deliver the “red line” for U.S. military action demanded by Netanyahu, he offered that “a nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained. That is why the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

Whether that commitment is sufficient for the Israelis remains to be seen; the recent track record says probably not. But the implied threat of military action to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is unlikely to carry significant international support. While there’s broad international consensus on demanding that Iran heed its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, there’s much less so on the suggestion that Iran is moving toward building nuclear weapons. The rejection of containment, moreover, given the extensive nuclear-weapons capability of the U.S. and (it is generally believed) Israel, is not exactly an international consensus. Indeed, there’s little support outside of the NATO countries for even the tough sanctions against Iran’s oil and banking sectors adopted by the U.S. and the E.U.; most other states that are complying are doing so under duress, facing sanctions themselves if they don’t. Even among the NATO countries, support for that unprecedented level of sanctions is largely a result of fear that the sanctions are the only alternative to Israel’s starting a potentially disastrous war. In 2008, Senator John McCain ran for President warning that that “the only thing worse than bombing Iran is Iran with the bomb.” Obama’s Tuesday speech seemed to echo that logic, but it’s not exactly conventional wisdom in Europe, much less beyond. Should Washington choose to initiate hostilities against Iran on the basis of its nuclear program, it will likely do so with an even smaller coalition of the willing than President Bush had when he invaded Iraq. Either a war or an Iranian attempt to weaponize nuclear material would be viewed internationally as a colossal diplomatic failure, and it’s unlikely that all the blame would be directed at Iran.

Hence President Obama’s insistence that the U.S. remains committed to a diplomatic solution. His international partners, having signed on to a de facto blockade of Iran’s international trade, may expect more from him on the diplomatic front in a second term.

(MORE: Hillary Clinton Spells Out the Future of U.S. Diplomacy)