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Obama speech at UN: Mideast diplomacy remains top focus

Addressing the UN General Assembly, Obama defended America's leading role in the world, including its readiness to use force, and indicated the Mideast will remain the focus of US diplomacy for the rest of his term.

By Staff writer / September 24, 2013

President Obama speaks during the 68th session of the General Assembly at United Nations headquarters in New York, Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013.

Seth Wenig/AP

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United Nations, N.Y.

[Story updated at 7:04 p.m.]

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President Obama presented a vigorous defense of America’s role in the world at the United Nations Tuesday, saying the United States always prefers diplomacy but will not flinch at taking military action if the international community proves unable to address pressing security challenges.

With his own threat to use force in Syria over the use of chemical weapons still fresh and with the challenge of Iran’s nuclear program looming, Mr. Obama offered a spirited case that it was the threat of force that got Syria diplomacy moving and that put the intractable Syrian conflict on a path of possible political resolution.

And he insisted that America’s unique ability to lead in international affairs, as he termed it, serves both the US and the international community.

“America must remain engaged for our own security,” he said, “but I also believe the world is better for it.”

Acknowledging that some in the institution he was addressing opposed the 2011 military intervention in Libya – a clear reference to Russia, among others – Obama said it was very likely that, without that use of external force, Libya would still be in a civil war like Syria’s, and former leader Muammar Qaddafi might still be trying to “kill his way” to retaining power.

Obama’s speech to the annual opening of the UN General Assembly, the fifth of his presidency, was largely dedicated to the challenges in the Middle East – remarkable considering the focus came from a president who entered office in 2009 pledging to “rebalance” US interests and priorities toward Asia. But the speech, which dedicated 35 of its 45 minutes to the Middle East, served as an acknowledgment that a region he had hoped to shift away from will remain the focus of American diplomacy for the remainder of his presidency.

“We will be engaged in the region for the long haul,” he said.

Syria’s civil war, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and Israeli-Palestinian peace are the issues that the US and the international community must address most urgently, Obama said – even as he cited Egypt and the broad challenges presented by the Arab awakening as requiring global attention as well. 

On Syria, Obama demanded a “strong” Security Council resolution to hold Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to his commitment to give up Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles. Failure to do so, he said, would reveal a UN incapable of “enforcing even the most basic of international laws.”

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