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.

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

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

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.”

But a chemical weapons agreement should be just the first step to resolving the Syria crisis through diplomacy, he added. And although Obama did not categorically restate his two-year-old insistence that “Assad must go,” he said the same thing in different words. A leader who has gassed his own people “cannot regain the legitimacy to govern his badly fractured country,” he said.

He also called on Russia and Iran to recognize that insisting on keeping Mr. Assad in power would only “lead to what they fear” in the form of an extremist hotbed in Syria that destabilizes the region.

On Iran, Obama said decades of mistrust between Washington and Tehran make “the diplomatic path” difficult, but he reiterated America’s preference to “resolve peacefully” the international community’s differences with Iran, including over its nuclear program.

Obama announced a new higher level of diplomacy with Iran, saying he has directed Secretary of State John Kerry to lead the US team in a new round of international talks with Iran over its nuclear program.

“The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested,” Obama said. 

“We are not seeking regime change,” Obama said, adding that at the same time the US recognizes Iran’s right to pursue peaceful civilian uses of nuclear energy.

Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, was not present for Obama’s speech, although both leaders had been scheduled to attend a lunch hosted by UN Secretary-general Ban Ki-moon. Opportunities at the lunch for a not-so-accidental meet-and-greet between Obama and Mr. Rouhani had been at the top of preoccupations in UN hallways Tuesday. In the end, no handshake took place. US officials said Obama had been willing, but that Iran apparently wasn’t ready for that to happen.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Obama said “the time is ripe” for the international community to “get behind” the ongoing US-brokered negotiations between the two sides.

Obama was to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the UN Tuesday, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to visit the White House on Monday before he travels to address the General Assembly next week.

In his speech, Obama acknowledged the often uneasy relationship the US has had with the world community, in particular in the last decade of US warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq. He recognized the tensions that result from drone attacks – attacks he insisted are strictly limited to cases of US national security threats and when other means are not possible.

He also included a paragraph on the international uproar over revelations of US spying on its allies and friends – an issue that dominated the forceful speech of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who preceded Obama to the General Assembly dais. Saying the US is working to “review the way we gather intelligence,” Obama said he is committed to finding a means of balancing security needs with legitimate privacy concerns.

Such issues have tarnished America’s image and encouraged a sentiment that America’s footprint in the world is too heavy, Obama said. But he also invited the global community to consider the ramifications of a world with no America willing to play a leadership role.

“The danger for the world is not an America that is too engaged,” he said. Rather, the real danger would come from an America that, after a decade of war and heavy commitment abroad, decided it was time to turn inward.

In that case, he said, America might “disengage – creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill.”

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