In U.N. speech, Obama lays groundwork for diplomacy with Iran

September 24, 2013
President Obama addresses United Nations
President Barack Obama speaks to the 68th Session of the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday Sept. 24, 2013. (AP Photo/Andrew Burton,Pool)

President Obama is often criticized for not explaining adequately his strategy in the Middle East, but he enumerated the basics in a careful, canonical speech to the United Nations Tuesday that provides a baseline for the razzle–dazzle diplomacy with Iran that lies ahead in coming days.

The speech enumerated “core interests” that the president said would anchor U.S. policy in the region, but it was also “core” Obama. It expressed the same central themes that Obama projected back in 2009 when he came into the White House: resolving the Iranian nuclear issue, settling the Israeli-Palestinian problem, and crafting a multilateral diplomacy for a U.S. that is withdrawing from “a perpetual war footing.”

The headline passages in the speech involved the opening to Iran that is unfolding this week. Obama said he was encouraged that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has “a mandate to pursue a more moderate course” and said he had instructed Secretary of State John Kerry to explore the possibilities of a breakthrough on the nuclear issue. Obama was also emphatic in supporting a diplomatic resolution of Syrian civil war, with Russian help, arguing that “the Syrian people cannot afford a collapse of state institutions.”

But it was the basso continuo part of the speech describing basic strategy that interested me as much as the high notes. “We will ensure the free flow of energy from the region to the world,” Obama said, recommitting to Gulf security at a time when America’s own need for that region’s oil is decreasing. He said the U.S. would continue to use “direct action” (ie, drone strikes) against terrorists, when necessary. And he took a forthrightly realpolitik stance on turmoil in Egypt, saying that the U.S. would back governments that don’t live up to the highest ideals (such as the Egyptian military regime) if they support those core U.S. interests.

Saudis, Emiratis and others from the region complain often they don’t understand U.S. policy. That will be a harder complaint to make now, after such a specific, taxonomic speech, though Gulf jitters will be increased by Obama’s embrace of the opening with Iran.

On the gut issue of whether a war-weary America is a weaker presence in the world, Obama took the novel position that if other countries want American engagement, they’ll have to earn it–and show “they want to work with us.” He pushed back against Arabs who complain at once about American “meddling” and for “failing to do enough to solve the region’s problems.” It was a refreshing contrast to the usual U.N. speech in which presidents blandly promise to do everything for everyone.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog.
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Jonathan Bernstein | September 24, 2013