What Obama Should Say to the UN

What Obama Should Say to the UN

From Western decline to peace-process paralysis to the rise of rogue states, what Obama must address—and what he should take responsibility for.


Today, President Barack Obama will deliver his third UN General Assembly speech. In his first address in 2009, he still embodied much of the mystique from his successful presidential campaign, and—most pertinent for UN purposes—he was not his predecessor. Last year, though Obama’s signature health-care program had been enacted, America’s economy was still not recovering, and he faced an impending electoral tsunami in November’s congressional elections.

These days, Obama’s presidency is endangered, his reelection prospects dimming, though not yet beyond repair. After nearly three years in office, his mantra of “hope and change” is badly frayed. The U.S. and global economies are still in peril, at risk of falling into a second recession. Internationally, Obama has been largely a nonentity—not “W” to be sure, but not really much of anything.


Moreover, the West as a whole is in disarray. The European Union’s inability to resolve the crisis in its common currency is only the most visible evidence of its growing disunity. Europe fractured over how to handle the Libyan rebellion against Qaddafi, it responded unevenly to the Palestinian quest for UN membership (or recognition of statehood) and its collective unwillingness to counter assaults on Israel’s legitimacy all reflect the same malaise. If, of course, the EU could formulate policies crisply and decisively then its influence, and that of the West, would increase. Instead, Europe compounds U.S. weaknesses, reminding us of the adage, “if I had some bread, I could have a ham sandwich if I had some ham.”

By contrast, Russia is using the substantial revenues from its international sale of oil and natural gas to refurbish and modernize its conventional armed forces, to rebuild its nuclear arsenal, and to expand its cruise- and ballistic-missile capabilities. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is actively seeking to reestablish Russia’s hegemony over the space of the former Soviet Union, intimidating its small neighbors and brandishing its oil and natural-gas weapon against Europe.

China is financing an even more ambitious modernization of its conventional forces, substantially expanding its nuclear and missile assets, and launching the first significant Chinese blue-water naval program in literally centuries. Beijing’s assertive, nearly belligerent territorial claims in the South China Sea, its efforts to restrict access by foreign (i.e., primarily American) naval forces from international waters near its shores and its development of “anti-access, area-denial” weapons systems all point to potential trouble ahead.

Rogue states like Iran and North Korea continue to make significant progress on their nuclear-weapons programs, perhaps provoking regional neighbors to protect their interests by developing their own nuclear capabilities. With multilateral efforts to reverse the North’s weapons program and to stop Iran’s having failed, the unmistakable message to all would-be proliferators is that they if they have the resolve, they too can become nuclear-weapons powers.

Across the Middle East, authoritarian leaders have been overthrown, but who will replace them? Will the “Arab Spring” in fact bring democracy (as its enthusiastic but naïve advocates believe), or has it instead unleashed long-repressed radical Islamists, enabling them to assume power? In short, will the Arab-nationalist revolution of the 1950’s and 1960’s be replaced by a theocratic revolution today?

And it is in the Middle East where Obama’s failings as president, as leader of the West, and as the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner are most evident as he prepares to mount the UN General Assembly podium. In substantial measure because of Obama’s misguided policies, this week in New York promises to be a very bad week for America, for Israel and for the UN itself.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) has announced unambiguously that it will seek full UN membership. While that decision is subject to last-minute change, if the PA proceeds against Obama’s express, public wishes, Washington will have no option but to cast a veto, thus forcing a crisis of confidence in its ability to lead the Middle East “peace process” to any discernible result. The PA’s decision likely came about because it had become so committed to some kind of UN action it could not reverse course without being humiliated. And one reason it was so exposed is President Obama’s passivity and mixed signals during a year-long public discussion of whether the PA should pursue UN membership. Had the White House exerted leadership at the outset, the PA could have been dissuaded well before now, at little or no cost to it or the United States. Now, there is every likelihood of a diplomatic debacle, to the detriment of all concerned. So convoluted is the situation that Hamas, the terrorist group ruling the Gaza Strip, has condemned the PA move as “empty of content,” one of the few accurate observations Hamas has ever made.

While the intricacies of UN procedure still hold many ways in which the PA issue could play out, one other development this week is clear and inevitable. The “Durban III” conference, being held simultaneously with the General Assembly’s opening, will adopt a resolution effectively condemning Israel as a racist state. Durban III, named after the original UN conference on racism held ten years ago in Durban, South Africa, will reaffirm the original Durban declaration, a document so vile that the United States and several other countries walked out of the conference in protest, resisting even the temptation to stay and vote “no.” At the time, Secretary of State Colin Powell called the Durban declaration “a throwback to the days of ‘Zionism equals racism,’” referring to the infamous 1975 General Assembly resolution adopting that repulsive formula. This week’s Durban III conference will be a replay of the 2001 and 2006 conferences, but so far only a dozen countries (including the United States, Canada, Italy, France and Great Britain) have announced they will not attend.

By seeking to delegitimize Israel, Durban III provides the other side of the coin to the PA’s misbegotten effort to legitimize itself through UN membership. One critical, hotly contested issue, for instance, almost lost from public view so far, is defining the borders of a Palestinian state (and, therefore, inevitably, Israel’s principal borders). In the end, however, all these theatrics will contribute little or nothing to achieving a just, stable Middle East peace. Instead, the polemics and hostilities will likely leave matters worse for all concerned, especially the hapless Palestinian people, constantly exploited by their own leaders for political objectives that rarely translate into better living considerations for actual Palestinians.

While not all of this folly is fairly attributable to Obama’s incompetent handling of the Middle East over the last two years, much of it most certainly is. And as the obsession with “peace processing” has consumed the Obama administration, Iran has marched inexorably forward with its nuclear-weapons program. Indeed, Iran will likely be this week’s real winner in New York, exemplified by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaking from the same General Assembly podium just twenty-four hours after the faltering president of the United States.

Image by Mr. Bullitt