The Middle East and North Africa were front and center of President Obama’s United Nations speech today.He used the opportunity to lay out for to the world America’s approach to some of the most pressing issues facing the Middle East: the Arab Spring counter-revolutions, rising sectarian violence, and mistrust of American motives among others.
These three issues stood out in particular.
Obama sounded more than cautiously optimistic about recent diplomatic openings with Iran. he stressed that these conciliatory notes must be backed up with firm action. But the rhetorical olive branch was firmly extended. Later this afternoon, when Hassan Rouhani speaks, we will see how Iran decides to publicly respond to this opening. But perhaps even more important that these public displays of moderate affection will be a key meeting of the P5 +1 (Russia, China, USA, France, UK and Germany) who will meet for the first time in direct negotiations with Iran for years. That happens on Thursday. It will be a key test of the extent to which Iran and the USA’s rhetoric of constructive engagement matches action.
Obama continued to make the case that intervention on Syria would be justified to punish Assad for using Chemical weapons. He did not mince words when he directly accused Russia and Iran of propping up Assad. “It’s time for Russia and Iran to realize that insisting on Assad’s rule will lead to the outcome they fear,” he said. But Obama did avoid directly injecting himself into the ongoing debate at the Security Council over a resolution to implement the plan that John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov agreed to three weeks ago. This is significant, because in recent days it has been looking like that agreement is starting to fray over differences between the USA and Russia on what should go into that resolution. The USA wants a strongly worded resolution, that backs the agreement with a firm penalties for non-compliance. Russia wants to strenuously avoid giving the USA an excuse to attack Syria. The fact that Obama did not directly dive into this ongoing debate suggests that the USA wants maximum flexibility to let this deal survive.
Finally, to his credit, Obama answered Ban Ki Moon’s call earlier today to increase international aid to the massive (and massively underfunded) Syria humanitarian crisis with an announcement of an additional $339 million of US aid. That’s a big deal–and arguably the most significant news to come out of his speech.
Obama meets with both Abbas and Netanyahu this week, and he rather profusely praised the steps that both sides have taken to pursue peace talks. It’s worth remembering where we were just one year ago: The USA was caught in an awkward diplomatic bind with the Palestinian authority making a strong push for full UN membership. The USA did not support that effort, but the White House promised progress on that front and it is delivering. As always with this issue, it is also one of domestic political importance in the United States, so Obama used the opportunity to stress that Israel’s viability as a democratic Jewish state depends on the success of the Two State Solution. It will be interesting to see if Benjamin Netanyahu takes a note from Obama and strikes a more conciliatory tone than he has in years’ past.