By Michael D. Shear and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 24, 2009
UNITED NATIONS, Sept. 23 -- President Obama challenged other nations to match his efforts to change the United States' relationship with the rest of the world on Wednesday, saying in an address to the United Nations that the task of solving global crises "cannot be solely America's endeavor."
Obama's speech came during a whirlwind week of international gatherings and diplomacy -- a climate-change summit and Middle East meetings on Tuesday; the U.N. General Assembly and Security Council on Wednesday and Thursday; and a Group of 20 meeting of world leaders to discuss the international economy on Friday.
The events unexpectedly coincided with a period of intense scrutiny in Washington of the critical choices facing the president in his Afghanistan policy -- and highlighted the constraints on Obama as he seeks a more cooperative relationship with the rest of the world.
From the moment he began speaking, Obama made clear his determination to repair the "skepticism and distrust" he said had built up under his predecessor, George W. Bush. He argued that Bush's tenure had fed a "reflexive anti-Americanism, which too often has served as an excuse for our collective inaction." The generally warm response Obama received, in contrast to the sometimes stony silence that greeted Bush at the United Nations, suggested that his presidency already is perceived differently.
Hailing what he called a new era in the United States' relationship with other nations, Obama ticked through the changes he said his administration has made. They include the banning of torture; the order to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; the winding down of the war in Iraq; the renewed focus on dismantling and defeating al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan; the appointment of a special envoy for the Middle East with the goal of a two-state peace agreement; and the fresh investment in combating climate change.
In return, Obama said, the United States expects help from others in addressing these issues. "Those who used to chastise America for acting alone in the world cannot now stand by and wait for America to solve the world's problems alone," he said. "We have sought -- in word and deed -- a new era of engagement with the world. Now is the time for all of us to take our share of responsibility for a global response to global challenges."
That summed up the challenge he faces. Can a different style, a more open hand and expressions of respect prompt the rest of the world to follow along as his administration tries to solve many of the same problems that confronted the Bush administration? And to what extent will Obama be willing to act, if not exactly unilaterally, then mostly alone, to advance U.S. interests?
Obama's speech, his first to the General Assembly, was an attempt to make good on his campaign pledge to forge a new compact with other nations, while recognizing that old problems -- of war, nuclear proliferation, economic distress and environmental crisis -- still command the nation's close attention.
Eight months into his administration, clear foreign policy success has been elusive. In his speech, the president conceded that attaining peace in the Middle East will be "difficult." He warned that Iran and North Korea must be held accountable for their actions. And he said that the world is doing irreversible damage to the climate.
The audience included several foreign leaders whom the administration is seeking to face down on the diplomatic front, among them Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has rebuffed other countries' calls to stop enriching uranium and has thumbed his nose at criticism of his human rights record, his hostility toward Israel and his support for groups that use terrorist tactics.
Ahmadinejad sat without obvious reaction as Obama chided Iran for its pursuit of nuclear weapons, saying its actions -- and similar efforts by North Korea -- "threaten to take us down this dangerous slope" that makes the world less secure.
Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi declared in a speech following Obama's that "Africans are proud that the son of Africa" has been elected to the presidency of the United States. He said he would be "happy and content if Obama can stay forever as president of America."
Gaddafi railed for more than 90 minutes on the "dictatorial" powers of the United States and the Security Council, saying the council's permanent members have established a "feudal" order in which poor countries have been terrorized through economic sanctions and military force. "It should not be called the Security Council," he said. "It should be called the Terror Council."
Regarding the Middle East, Obama said that Palestinians have "legitimate claims and rights" and that the United States' "unwavering commitment" to Israel's security must be coupled with an insistence that Israel recognize them. But he also said the world must urge Palestinians to "recognize Israel's legitimacy and its right to exist in peace and security." Both statements were greeted with applause.
On climate change, Obama again declared that a new era has dawned in which the United States will no longer be an obstacle to action. "The days when America dragged its feet on this issue are over," he said, a clear reference to the Bush administration. But he repeated his demand for responsibility on the part of developing countries, which he said could do more to reduce their air pollution without inhibiting their economic growth.
Part of Obama's success on these fronts will be determined as much by the steadiness of his leadership and the respect he is able to command as by his appeals for cooperation. Obama has set clear goals in foreign policy, and in his speech Wednesday, he outlined concrete steps in some of the areas of priority. But as he spoke, his administration was engaged in an important internal debate on Afghanistan -- one that became all the more public Monday with the publication in The Washington Post of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's report warning that the mission there will fail unless more troops are deployed.
It was only a few months ago that the president announced a new strategy for Afghanistan; McChrystal was installed to implement that effort. Now, in the wake of reports that the general wants more troops, administration officials suggest that another strategy may be needed. They cite a new set of conditions, including the messy aftermath of the recent election in Afghanistan, as a cause for reassessment. The election certified rather than exposed what administration officials have long known -- that President Hamid Karzai is an unreliable partner in the battle against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
When he was running for president, Obama found the war in Afghanistan a convenient policy foil for his opposition to the Iraq conflict, though one to which he seemed genuinely committed. Opposed to the war in Iraq, he was able to demonstrate muscularity on foreign policy by arguing that Iraq was consuming resources better focused on Afghanistan.
Now, some Obama advisers hear echoes of Vietnam in the military's call for more troops and more time before the mission in Afghanistan can be expected to succeed. Meanwhile, outside pressure has built for Obama to listen to the generals and not to waver in his commitment of the forces they say are needed to defeat al-Qaeda. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whom Obama defeated for the presidency, is among those ratcheting up the pressure. He is speaking as forcefully now in favor of an escalation as he was when he called for more troops in Iraq, long before Bush initiated the "surge" policy that helped quell the violence there.
At the United Nations on Wednesday, Obama sought to rally the world to act on challenges as diverse as the economy, nuclear proliferation and the environment. But Afghanistan is an example of how the United States must set its own course before other countries will follow. The rest of the world will be watching to see how the president responds.
Balz reported from Washington. Staff writer Colum Lynch at the United Nations contributed to this report.