US President Barack Obama’s address to the UN General Assembly’s annual General Debate, as part of the opening of its 67th session, was very much focused on the ‘Arab world’ and the territories to which it translates geographically. As such, it was reminiscent of his corresponding speech last year, when he congratulated the citizens of ‘Arab Spring’ touched countries for driving a transition to new political regimes. Yesterday (25 September), however, if the area of focus was similar, the tone was more preoccupied and less laudatory. Obama expressed his concerns about mounting tensions in the region.
Opening his speech with a reference to Chris Stevens, the US ambassador killed recently in Benghazi, Libya, was not an innocent reference. Stevens was murdered in attacks allegedly committed by terrorists affiliated to Al Qaeda. In the meantime, riots spread across the Muslim world targeting US diplomatic missions – notably in Egypt and Tunisia – after the trailer of The Innocence of Muslims found a viral audience. Yesterday, Obama reiterated his criticism of the movie, talking about a “crude and disgusting video.” Yet, he also took a firm stance in defense of freedom of speech – even of blasphemy.
Through continuous references to an individual who “embodied the best of America”, later explained as the “belief that individuals should be free to determine their own destiny, and live with liberty, dignity, justice, and opportunity”, Obama once again made a clear stand for freedom, redrawing the dividing line between those promoting hateful speech versus “tolerance”. Additionally, he explained that cooperation would be endangered if unwelcome, criticizing the politics of hatred: “burning an American flag will do nothing to educate a child.”
Another source of concern for the US in the Middle East is linked to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. On that issue, like Mitt Romney, Obama showed clear support for Israel’s right and legitimacy to exist. Yet the campaigning President also differed from his challenger: on 20 September, Romney had said a Palestinian state would be “an unmitigated diplomatic disaster.” His point was short but straightforward. Noting the difficulties of negotiations and concessions, he explained that the only possible solution resided in two independent entities, “a secure, Jewish state of Israel; and an independent, prosperous Palestine.”
Finally, Obama addressed the Syrian crisis. A much-expected theme ahead of the General Debate, it was also at the core of other speeches yesterday, notably that of French President, François Hollande. Heads of state were expected to react to declarations to the Security Council by the new Joint UN-Arab League Envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, and to reports published over the summer on atrocities committed against civilians.
Taking over the role vacated by Kofi Annan, and briefing the Security Council for the first time since his appointment on 24 September, Brahimi explained that the conflict was worsening. He saw no immediate hope of ending the war after meeting representatives of both the opposition and current Syrian regime. The positioning of Obama on the matter was clear-cut as to al-Assad’s fate: “the future must not belong to a dictator who massacres his people.” He nevertheless also warned against “sectarian violence.”
Unavoidably linked to all other concerns was the question of Iran: the last specific regional point mentioned at the opening speech of the General Debate, it was nonetheless one deemed most threatening by the US government. Obama clearly stated that Iran was a threat not only to its neighbors – through the support it provided to the Syrian regime – but also to the security of the wider region and world more broadly. At the heart of this threat was the acquisition by Iran of nuclear weapons: “a nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained” explained Obama. He added, “the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
As Obama’s first mandate comes to an end, what was said – and not said – are indications of the legacy and warnings he will leave for his successor, be it himself or Romney. Conspicuous in its absence during his discussion of international security threats was Afghanistan, of which no specific mention was made for the first time in a decade. Apart from succinct references to international cooperation and the rest of the world, what was conveyed clearly was that the foreign policy concerns of the US are strongly linked to its relationship with the Muslim and Arab worlds, recalling the recurrent efforts by Obama to launch “a new beginning” with these countries and their inhabitants since his visit to Cairo in 2009.
Photo © UN Photo/Marco Castro