President Barack Obama launched the 68th United Nations General Assembly at the U.N.'s headquarters in New York City on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013 with a speech that primarily focused on the United States' new foreign policy doctrine; turning to diplomatic interventions to promote peace in the Middle East. The President spoke predominantly of solutions to Syrian chemical weapons and nuclear Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in his 45-minute address.
President Obama spent two days in New York on Monday and Tuesday Sept. 23 and 24 having bilateral meetings mostly with Middle Eastern leaders, and attending important general assembly events. Many thought that President Obama would meet or even shake hands with the new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as a sign that a diplomatic solution has the possibility to be reached, but despite overtures from the White House, the Iranian government declined any meeting between the two leaders, citing it as "too complicated" for Iran.
The President began his address praising the U.N.'s accomplishments; "For decades, the United Nations has in fact made a difference -- from helping to eradicate disease, to educating children, to brokering peace. But like every generation of leaders, we face new and profound challenges, and this body continues to be tested. The question is whether we possess the wisdom and the courage, as nation-states and members of an international community, to squarely meet those challenges; whether the United Nations can meet the tests of our time."
Obama made it clear that the U.S. will shift their direction from military intervention, especially when American vital interests are not directly threatened to diplomacy with the help of others, predominantly the U.N. to avert mass human rights violations. Obama stated; "For the United States, these new circumstances have also meant shifting away from a perpetual war footing… I have made it clear that even when America's core interests are not directly threatened, we stand ready to do our part to prevent mass atrocities and protect human rights. Yet we cannot and should not bear that burden alone."
After describing the recent increase of terrorism in North Africa and the Middle East evidenced by the rash of attacks this past weekend in Kenya and Pakistan, the President spent the majority of his speech emphasizing the threats that Syria's chemical weapons and Iran's nuclear program pose for international security, only mentioning in passing additional conflicts in Egypt, Libya and Africa that add to the region's instability. Offering a new solution, Obama stated that diplomacy is the best way to solve the major conflicts in North African and the Middle East however, maintaining the strong threat of military force when U.S national security is at risk or as a last resort especially in reference to Syria.
President Obama also introduced his administration's Middle East foreign policy doctrine for the remainder of his presidency; "In the near term, America's diplomatic efforts will focus on two particular issues: Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. While these issues are not the cause of all the region's problems, they have been a major source of instability for far too long, and resolving them can help serve as a foundation for a broader peace."
Obama also established his administration's red line on chemical and nuclear weapons, clarifying and warning; "We will not tolerate the development or use of weapons of mass destruction. Just as we consider the use of chemical weapons in Syria to be a threat to our own national security, we reject the development of nuclear weapons that could trigger a nuclear arms race in the region, and undermine the global nonproliferation regime."
The first Middle East issue President Obama delved into was a diplomatic solution to Syria's ongoing civil war and destroying their nuclear weapons arsenal. Obama urged the U.N. Security Council to pass a strong resolution that would threaten a military strike if Syria's fail to comply with the agreement laid out by the U.S. and Russia to gather and dispose of the entire chemical weapon arsenal. Obama originally planned a limited military strike in response to a Syrian chemical weapons attack using sarin gas on Aug. 21, 2013 ordered by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad near the city of Damascus that left 1429 Syrian citizens, including 400 children dead, before Russia proposed the diplomatic solution that is now being enacted.
The President beseeched; "The Syrian government took a first step by giving an accounting of its stockpiles. Now there must be a strong Security Council resolution to verify that the Assad regime is keeping its commitments, and there must be consequences if they fail to do so… Without a credible military threat, the Security Council had demonstrated no inclination to act at all.If we cannot agree even on this, then it will show that the U.N. is incapable of enforcing the most basic of international laws."
Secondly the President focused on Iran and formally stated that he will take up Iran's offer to pursue a diplomatic solution to end their quest for nuclear capability. Iran is looking for an exchange that would lift the sanctions imposed on the country. Obama cautioned; "I don't believe this difficult history can be overcome overnight -- the suspicions run too deep. But I do believe that if we can resolve the issue of Iran's nuclear program, that can serve as a major step down a long road towards a different relationship, one based on mutual interests and mutual respect."
Obama remained cynical because of the deteriorated relations between both countries since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, but also open to the idea of a solution to a simmering problem, stating; "The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested."
President Obama pledged to spend the rest of his presidency trying to improve American relations with Iran. This is the first time in nearly 34 years that there has been any step of this magnitude aimed at thawing relations between the countries, especially with Iran pursuing their nuclear program. Obama stated that Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with Iranian foreign minister Javad Zafir in the first direct meeting on Thursday to begin the process of direct negotiations.
The third area President Obama focused on was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the peace talks they have been engaging in since the end of July. The President declared; "The time is now ripe for the entire international community to get behind the pursuit of peace. Already, Israeli and Palestinian leaders have demonstrated a willingness to take significant political risks."
Obama described the obligations, realizations and sacrifices both sides have to make for peace to occur; "Friends of Israel, including the United States, must recognize that Israel's security as a Jewish and democratic state depends upon the realization of a Palestinian state, and we should say so clearly. Arab states, and those who supported the Palestinians, must recognize that stability will only be served through a two-state solution and a secure Israel."
The President tried to point out a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians will be a major factor towards stability in the region, continuing; "All of us must recognize that peace will be a powerful tool to defeat extremists throughout the region, and embolden those who are prepared to build a better future."
President Obama concluded his speech promising the U.S. will still remain involved in solving world problems and conflicts, saying; "I believe America must remain engaged for our own security. But I also believe the world is better for it." Obama also finally firmly responded to Russian President Vladimir Putin's criticism of "American exceptionalism." Obama proudly stated; "Some may disagree, but I believe America is exceptional -- in part because we have shown a willingness through the sacrifice of blood and treasure to stand up not only for our own narrow self-interests, but for the interests of all."
Recent polls indicated that the President's approval rating took a hit from his handling of the recent crisis in Syria from his changing courses midpoint from advocating for a military strike to a quick turn towards a diplomatic solution. Americans believe Obama's actions hindered America's world leadership standing. The President is looking for a way to elevate American standing; his answer is using diplomacy to solve the world's problem, while the U.S. takes the credit.
Obama believes, because the U.S. was lucky in securing a deal over Syria's chemical weapons through diplomacy that it can become the new method for the U.S. to intervene in the world's, and in this case the Middle East's major conflicts without resorting to military intervention which, is increasingly unpopular and opposed by Americans after the decade long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but lightening does not always strike twice and history teaches that some situations are beyond diplomatic solutions.
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are US, Canadian & Israeli politics.