UNITED NATIONS — President Barack Obama just concluded his fifth speech before the United Nations General Assembly. Here’s the most important parts of what he did — and didn’t — say.
1. Syria is on notice still, despite chemical weapons deal.
The first focus of Obama’s speech was the civil war in Syria. The President ran through the various ways that the ills of the Middle East as a region were embodied in the country. He lamented that aid efforts are unable to keep pace with the suffering of the Syrian people and that peace negotiations are “stillborn.” Obama also slammed the idea that “anyone other than the regime carried out” the chemical weapons attack in late August that killed thousands outside of Damascus as an “insult to human reasoning and legitimacy of the [United Nations].”
At times defensive, Obama held that only the threat of U.S. military action was able to prod Syria into showing a willingness to have its chemical weapons placed under international control. Obama called for a strong U.N. Security Council resolution to enforce the deal the U.S. had struck with Russia and consequences should Syria back out of the deal. “If we cannot agree even on this, it will show that the United Nations is incapable of enforcing even the most basic of international laws,” he warned. “But if we succeed, it will send a powerful message that chemical weapons have no place in the 21st century and this body means what it says.”
2. The Middle East — including Israel and Palestine — will continue to be at the forefront of U.S. policy.
Fans of the much-reported “pivot to Asia” and away from the Middle East as the core of U.S. foreign policy focus were surely disappointed by today’s speech. During it, Obama reaffirmed the core principles that President Obama believes that America is prepared to use all elements of our power — including military force — to protect. These include confronting aggression against our allies, ensuring the free-flow of energy, dismantling terrorist groups, and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction. He also defended the concept of democracy in the Middle East, acknowledging that Iraq demonstrated it cannot be imposed through war.
Obama also spoke forcefully about the need for the international community to step up and support Israeli and Palestinian peace negotiations. “Two states is the only real way to peace, the time is now ripe for the entire international community to get behind the pursuit to peace,” he said, citing the political risks both sides have taken so far. “Now the rest of us must be willing to take risks as well,” Obama declared.
3. The U.S. is prepared to make a deal over Iran’s nuclear program.
President Obama devoted a large portion of his speech to declaring the U.S. ready and willing to work with Iran on a peaceful solution to the ongoing crisis around its nuclear program. As he rightly noted, the mistrust between the two countries has deep roots, with each side wary of the other’s previous actions and current positioning around the region. “I don’t believe this difficult history can be overcome overnight,” Obama said, “suspicions run too deep. But I do believe if we can resolve the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, this can serve as a step down a long road towards a different relationship.”
Newly sworn-in Iranian president Hassan Rouhani — who speaks later on Tuesday — has been on a public relations blitz to convince Western media that he is both ready and empowered to make a deal. Even Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni has been more pliable than normal in public, praising “heroic flexibility” in diplomacy. Obama seemed to reciprocate on Tuesday, citing the death of thousands of Iranians in poison gas attacks during the 1980s as part of his argument against chemical weapons usage in something of a conciliatory nod towards Iran. “We are encouraged that President Rouhani received mandate from Iran people to pursue a more moderate course,” Obama said.
He did make clear, though, that the U.S. will not tolerate the development or use of weapons of mass destruction and that America remains poised to take action if no diplomatic deal is possible. But he was firmer than ever in elucidating that his administration’s policy was directed towards only the prevention of Iranian nuclear weapons. “We are not seeking regime change and we we respect the rights of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy,” he said, both key worries of the leadership in Tehran. To succeed, however, Obama warned that conciliatory words will have to be matched by actions that are transparent and verifiable, directing Secretary of State John Kerry to pursue a deal with Iran in conjunction with the other members of the P5+1 group — China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom.
4. Ambassador Sam Power is already making her mark at the United Nations.
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power has only been on the job for a few weeks, but her influence in today’s speech couldn’t be clearer. Obama strongly defended the idea of helping prevent, deter, and — if necessary — intervene to end mass atrocities, the focus of Power’s work before joining the administration. In particular, he stood up for his choice to intervene militarily in Libya in 2011 despite the criticism over the current situation in the country and the death of four Americans in Benghazi last year.
“But does anyone truly believe that the situation in Libya would be better if Qaddafi had been allowed to kill, imprison, or brutalize his people into submission?” Obama asked. “It is far more likely that without international action, Libya would now be engulfed in civil war and bloodshed.”
“We live in a world of imperfect choices,” Obama said. “Different nations will not agree on the need for action in every instance, and the principle of sovereignty is at the center of our international order. But sovereignty cannot be a shield for tyrants to commit wanton murder, or an excuse for the international community to turn a blind eye to slaughter.”
5. The National Security Agency’s overseas activities aren’t going to be a favorite topic of discussion.
It seems that Obama wasn’t particularly excited to discuss the concerns that other countries have expressed in light of revelations on the extent of the U.S.’ surveillance programs overseas. “We have begun to review the way that we gather intelligence, so as to properly balance the legitimate security concerns of our citizens and allies, with the privacy concerns that all people share,” he said at the top of his speech and not returning to the subject later. This came immediately after Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff used her time at the podium to slam the U.S. — repeatedly — for its activities, including allegedly spying on her email. Obama’s reluctance to dive into the issue will likely make for uncomfortable future bilateral meetings during the rest of his time in New York.