UN General Assembly: Can Obama win over a skeptical audience?

Revelations about NSA spying and Obama's recent readiness to bypass the Security Council and go it alone on Syria could chill his reception at the UN. US diplomacy on Iran and the Mideast could help.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
President Barack Obama (c.) is seen in a mirror behind members of the Nigerian delegation as he meets with Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan (not seen) in New York September 23, 2013. The leaders are in New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly.

Once a rock star – now a fallen star?

President Obama makes his annual trek to the United Nations in New York this week with little of the aura of international fascination and hopeful anticipation that accompanied him when he was received as a new and different American leader four years ago.

When Mr. Obama speaks to the UN General Assembly (GA) Tuesday morning, he’ll face a skeptical audience mindful that just two weeks earlier, Obama was prepared to bypass the UN and the Security Council to bomb Syria over the use of chemical weapons in the civil war there.

For much of the international community, that posture was reminiscent of President George W. Bush and his unilateral decision to invade Iraq in 2003 after having deemed the UN “irrelevant.” Obama’s finger on the Syria trigger made him look to the world like other US presidents: ready to use the military might of the world’s sole superpower.

The impression of an arrogant America that holds itself above the rest will also tinge Obama’s relations with world leaders who are still smarting over recent revelations of widespread National Security Agency spying on America’s allies and partners.

“These issues haven’t been played as smoothly as they might have been, and now the repercussions are coming back on Obama and he’s going to pay a price,” says Michael Doyle, a professor of US foreign and security policy at Columbia University in New York and a former assistant secretary-general at the UN. “He’s dug himself a hole he’s going to have to start climbing out of at the General Assembly.”

Obama can expect to confront the international fury over the NSA’s widespread “spy on our friends” operations even before he takes the General Assembly stage. President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil – the country that by tradition gives the first leader’s speech, just before the US – is expected to raise the NSA spying program in her address.

“Things may get pretty dramatic … if Rousseff carries Brazil’s outrage over the NSA spying into the GA, and then is immediately followed by Obama,” says Dr. Doyle.

Not everyone agrees that Obama has distanced himself from his penchant for diplomacy – or that recent events doom him to a poor reception at the UN.  

White House officials say the president’s handling of the Syria crisis and in particular administration efforts to address Syria’s chemical weapons challenge through multilateral channels – an effort that will be on display at the UN this week – demonstrate Obama’s deep preference for diplomacy over military action.

What the evolution of the Syria chemical weapons crisis demonstrates is how “diplomacy backed by a credible threat of force can … change the equation” of countries involved, says Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser.

The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which the US accuses of carrying out a large-scale chemical weapons attack against civilians last month, is now committed to giving up its chemical weapons stockpiles, the White House notes. And Russia, which has blocked Security Council action on Syria for two years, is now negotiating with the US and other countries a council resolution to provide the framework for ridding Syria of its chemical weapons.    

And despite the downsides for Obama in the Syria crisis and the NSA scandal, the UN this year also offers some rays of sunshine, some foreign policy analysts insist. Other perennial diplomatic challenges that have faced Obama before at the UN are less contentious than in past years and should allow him to project the diplomatic aptitude the world prefers to see.

Two such challenges are Iran, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, is setting a new tone for Iran at the UN – and providing Obama with an opening to re-extend the hand of engagement that he first offered to Iran in his first inaugural address.

Much of the buzz in UN hallways is over speculation that Obama and Mr. Rouhani will find a moment to shake hands and exchange greetings – something that would have been unthinkable at past GA meetings, when Iran was represented by the fiery anti-American president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Obama and Rouhani have already exchanged letters. And even if the two presidents don’t meet, the White House confirmed Monday that the highest-level meeting of US and Iranian officials in more than three decades will take place Thursday, when Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zariz take part in a meeting of the so-called P5+1 group of powers – Security Council permanent members US, Russia, China, France, and United Kingdom, plus Germany – on Iran’s nuclear program.

And this year Obama can report to the General Assembly that US-brokered negotiations are under way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with security for Israel and a state for Palestinians. That will cast Obama in a much better light compared with the past two years, when two Palestinian gambits for achieving statehood without negotiations put the US – and Obama – in the awkward position of siding against the Palestinians on aspirations that most of the world supports.

Just how much luster Obama can return to his star remains to be seen. But Columbia’s Doyle notes that Obama is climbing out of his diplomatic “hole” right at the time when recent presidents were turning to international affairs to secure their legacies.

“The second term is when presidents turn to global diplomacy and leadership,” Doyle says. “It would be too bad if these circumstances Obama finds himself in – the NSA scandal and poor management of the Syria crisis – handicap his global agenda for the next four years.”

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