Obama trip to UN: why it's not all about Palestinian statehood

Palestinian statehood is at the top of the agenda as President Obama heads to the UN this week. But meetings on the sidelines regarding a variety of issues could be even more significant.

Seth Wenig/AP
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (l.) shakes hands with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon during the 66th session of the General Assembly Monday at United Nations headquarters in New York. President Obama has elected not to meet with Abbas at the UN this week.

President Obama has the tricky task this week of explaining to the world how the United States can welcome the democratic advances some Arab countries have made in the remarkable year of the “Arab Spring” – while opposing the Palestinians’ bid for international recognition of their statehood.

Mr. Obama heads to New York Monday for 48 hours of intense diplomacy. The president’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly Wednesday and the US confrontation with the Palestinians over their plan to seek full UN membership as an independent state will dominate the week.

But away from the glare of the UN stage, it may be Obama’s chocka-block schedule of bilateral meetings with a list of key world leaders Tuesday and Wednesday that has the greater impact on the course of US diplomacy for the rest of Obama’s first term.

Obama is to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai for the first time since announcing his plan to begin drawing down US forces and transitioning security to the Afghans. He will also meet with the head of Libya’s new interim government, Mustafa Abdul Jalil.

The president’s agenda includes a chat with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu but not with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who has exasperated administration officials by resisting US pressure to drop the planned request for full UN recognition. And he is to sit down with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, a key NATO ally who has alternately delighted (accepting anti-missile radars) and worried (assuming an increasingly get-tough stance toward Israel) the US in recent weeks.

Obama will also meet with British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, in part to indulge in some mutual back-slapping over NATO’s successful campaign in Libya. But White House officials say the president will also take up the deepening European debt crisis – an area where the Europeans have rebuffed any American counsel.

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Comparing this week’s opening of the UN General Assembly to an industry’s annual convention, former UN official Mark Quarterman says the “less interesting things often happen in the convention meeting rooms and more interesting things happen on the margins – the bilateral meetings the president’s going to have, the small group meetings.

“If you look at it this way, then the speeches become a lot less important and the interactions on issues that they’re just going to take advantage of being together become a lot more important,” adds Mr. Quarterman, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Any time the US president speaks at the UN, the administration has at least one eye on domestic politics and the home audience. That is all the more true this year, as Obama enters a tough reelection campaign.

As his ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, made clear at a recent Monitor breakfast in Washington, Obama will use his time in New York to make the case that his deepening involvement in multilateral diplomacy – as opposed to the Bush administration’s more unilateral approach to the world – has served US interests while boosting America’s standing globally.

Although he is unlikely to say so publicly, Obama will be using his time in New York to drive home the point that the US is better off inside the UN tent – as imperfect as Ambassador Rice acknowledges that tent may be – than sitting on the outside.

The administration wants that message to contrast with congressional Republican efforts to significantly reduce US payments to the UN. These cuts would extend to humanitarian and development assistance that administration officials say earns the US goodwill and ultimately serves US national security interests.

Some of the president’s actions in New York are more political than others, some analysts say. They point to his plans to meet with Mr. Netanyahu while turning his back on Mr. Abbas a year after he brought both leaders to Washington for ill-fated direct peace talks.

The failure of those talks lies with both Mideast leaders, most regional analysts agree. And Netanyahu went so far as to publicly confront the US president in the White House over Obama’s May speech aimed at restarting the stalled negotiations.

Yet Obama will meet with Netanyahu in New York – only a few miles away, as political analysts point out, from the heavily Jewish and traditionally Democratic congressional district that earlier this month opted for a Republican in a special election to replace Rep. Anthony Weiner.

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