- By Colum LynchColum Lynch is Foreign Policy's award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. Lynch previously wrote Foreign Policy's Turtle Bay blog, for which he was awarded the 2011 National Magazine Award for best reporting in digital media., Ty McCormickTy McCormick is Africa Editor at Foreign Policy
U.S. President Barack Obama presented world leaders at the United Nations with an image of America as a reluctant superpower, ready to confront Iran’s nukes and kill its enemies with targeted drone strikes, but unprepared to embark on open-ended military missions in Syria and other troubled countries. That, he hinted, should give the world cause for anxiety.
"The United States has a hard-earned humility when it comes to our ability to determine events inside other countries," he said in his address before the 193-member General Assembly. "The notion of American empire may be useful propaganda, but it isn’t borne out by America’s current policy or public opinion."
Obama said that "the recent debate within the United States over Syria clearly showed the danger for the world is not an America that is eager to immerse itself in the affairs of other countries or take on every problem in the region as its own. The danger for the world is that the United States, after a decade of war — rightly concerned about issues back home, aware of the hostility that our engagement in the region has engendered throughout the Muslim world — may disengage, creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill."
Obama said that for the time being, American foreign-policy priorities in the Middle East will focus primarily on two key priorities: "Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and the Arab-Israeli conflict. While these issues are not the cause of all the region’s problems, they have been a major source of instability for far too long, and resolving them can help serve as a foundation for a broader peace."
In addressing the conflict in Syria, Obama said U.S. aims were largely humanitarian.
"There’s no ‘great game’ to be won, nor does America have any interest in Syria beyond the well-being of its people, the stability of its neighbors, the elimination of chemical weapons, and ensuring it does not become a safe haven for terrorists," he said.
Obama affirmed his commitment to the U.S.-Russian plan to place the Assad regime’s chemical weapons under international control, acknowledging that the Syrian president had taken a positive initial step by declaring his stockpiles.
"My preference has always been a diplomatic resolution to this issue," he said, stressing the importance of a Security Council resolution that will hold Assad to his commitments. "There must be consequences if they fail to do so," he said. "If we cannot agree even on this, then it will show that the U.N. is incapable of enforcing the most basic of international laws."
The president presented the U.S.-Russian plan as a catalyst for a broader international effort to bring the conflict to an end, but emphasized that America should not determine who will eventually lead in Syria. In keeping with his characteristically small-bore approach, he announced an additional $340 million in U.S. humanitarian assistance but shied away from any mention of toppling Bashar al-Assad.
The United States and Russia remain sharply divided over how to implement their chemical weapons agreement; the U.N. Security Council resolution endorsing the pact has been delayed several times. The United States insists that Syria face the threat of unspecified "consequences" if it fails to comply with its obligation to disarm, while Russia prefers a more consensual approach that includes no explicit or implicit threat of force.
Speaking before Obama, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the U.N. Security Council to hold the Syrian government to "fully and quickly honor[ing]" the obligations it has undertaken to destroy its chemical weapons, and he pleaded with the Security Council to move forward with an "enforceable" resolution ensuring that Syria complies.
But Ban added that removing unconventional arms can’t be the international community’s only goal in Syria. "We can hardly be satisfied with destroying chemical weapons while the wider war is still destroying Syria. The vast majority of the killing and atrocities have been carried out with conventional weapons," he said.
Ban urged Syria’s combatants and their foreign backers to "stop fueling the bloodshed in Syria" and halt all arms shipments to the fighters. "Military victory is an illusion," he said. "The only answer is a political settlement." Ban also raised the possibility of sending U.N. human rights monitors to Syria, where they "could play a useful role in reporting and deterring further violations."
Obama, meanwhile, laid out a rather modest account of American "core interests" in the Middle East and North Africa: countering military aggression against U.S. partners in the region, protecting global energy reserves, and confronting the dual threats of terrorism and nuclear proliferation.
"The United States of America is prepared to use all elements of our power, including military force, to secure these core interests in the region," he said. "But I also believe that we can rarely achieve these objectives through unilateral American action — particularly with military action. Iraq shows us that democracy cannot be imposed by force. Rather, these objectives are best achieved when we partner with the international community and with the countries and people of the region."
Accordingly, he defended the U.S. decision to work with Egypt’s new military regime, which came to power through a July 3 military coup and launched a bloody crackdown on its political opposition. "Our approach to Egypt reflects a larger point: The United States will at times work with governments that do not meet the highest international expectations, but who work with us on our core interests," Obama said.
Obama added that he is willing to work even with America’s traditional rivals, singling out Iran, to achieve his goals. Speaking several hours before Iranian President Hasan Rouhani was due to address the U.N. General Assembly, Obama offered assurances that "we are not seeking regime change, and we respect the right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy. Instead, we insist that the Iranian government meet its responsibilities under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and U.N. Security Council resolutions."
"We should be able to achieve a resolution that respects the rights of the Iranian people, while giving the world confidence that the Iranian program is peaceful. To succeed, conciliatory words will have to be matched by actions that are transparent and verifiable."
Earlier in the day, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff took to the U.N. podium to blast the massive electronic spying program that Obama has overseen in office. The surveillance, she claimed, constitutes a breach of international law and an affront to America’s allies. Obama sought to assure leaders like her that he is listening. "We have begun to review the way that we gather intelligence, so as to properly balance the legitimate security concerns of our citizens and allies with the privacy concerns that all people share," Obama said. But he went on to defend the controversial eavesdropping effort, saying it was a just approach to combating terrorism by a superpower that is "shifting away from a perpetual war-footing."