At 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Air Force One should touch down at John F. Kennedy International Airport with President Barack Obama aboard for what will arguably be the most pivotal visit by an American president to the opening of the U.N. General Assembly since George W. Bush appeared before the body in 2002 to make his case for war against Iraq.
Elected in large part on his anti-Iraq War bona fides, Obama probably doesn’t appreciate the analogy, but the fact remains that he arrives in New York to build the kind of international coalition to carry out military action in Iraq that Bush tried, and failed, to create. The military campaign Obama has in mind is by one measure broader, as his strategy for defeating the Islamic State includes strikes in Syria, which began late Monday. American diplomats have been scrambling to recruit allies ever since Obama announced on Sept. 10 that the United States will confront the militant group beyond Iraq’s borders, and that effort is likely to continue even as American jets carry out strikes in Syria.
Also on the world body’s agenda: a host of other global crises. The unprecedented Ebola outbreak in West Africa, efforts to combat climate change, negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, and, perhaps, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are also likely to rear their thorny heads.
Two weeks after he went before the nation to present a strategy to "degrade and ultimately destroy" the self-proclaimed Islamic State, Obama has arguably proven himself a far better coalition builder than his predecessor. France, a vehement opponent of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, carried out airstrikes in Iraq on Friday, and a host of Arab countries have signed on to Obama’s war effort there. In addition to American jets, Monday’s sorties in Syria included planes from the UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. On Wednesday, Obama appears before the General Assembly to deliver an address that will likely focus on explaining his strategy against the Islamic State and recruiting allies.
The same day, Obama will lead the U.N. Security Council discussion about the flow of foreign fighters into and out of Syria. Thousands of men and women with Western passports have traveled there to join up with radical Islamist groups, and that has counterterrorism officials terrified that they can easily slip back into their home countries to carry out attacks. That fear has helped galvanize Obama’s support among his European allies. Wednesday’s meeting is likely to focus on measures to outlaw joining jihadi groups. Counterterrorism efforts in Europe prioritize stopping citizens before they travel to Syria and Iraq. A strong resolution backing that effort would help provide legitimacy and possibly speed up police efforts.
Although American politicians have been busy issuing apocalyptic warnings about the threat posed by Islamic State militants, more than 2,800 West Africans have died from Ebola. The international community has been slow in realizing the outbreak’s full magnitude but now both the U.N. and the United States are getting serious about halting its spread. Last Thursday, the Security Council declared the outbreak a threat to international peace and security and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon dispatched an emergency mission to West Africa to coordinate efforts to stop it. Obama has also pledged 3,000 U.S. military personnel to the region. On Thursday, Obama will attend a special meeting on the outbreak, where he is expected to discuss that plan and recruit more nations to help fight the lethal virus.
Obama kicks off his United Nations week Tuesday with a climate-change speech at a one-day summit on the matter. The meeting comes on the heels of a huge march in New York City on Sunday that drew more than 300,000 people clamoring for world leaders to make headway against rising levels of greenhouse-gas emissions. Obama, frustrated in his effort to secure a global or national agreement curbing emissions, has said he will use his executive authority to implement his environmental agenda and skirt a recalcitrant Congress.
His unilateral action on environmental issues may increase his stature as he goes before delegates on Tuesday, but don’t expect the meeting to produce a meaningful agreement on greenhouse emissions. Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi — the leaders of two developing countries whose environmental policies will be critical if any progress is to be made in reducing the amount of CO2 gases in the atmosphere — won’t be attending. Indeed, in the absence of consensus, the meeting may look ahead to December’s big climate summit in Peru. With a little more than two years left in office, Obama is already thinking about his legacy, and Tuesday’s address could become a key moment in his presidency if — and it’s a big if — he’s able to marshal a coalition of states and hammer out a climate agreement.
Will they or won’t they? That will be the big question hovering around Obama and his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani. With Iran engaged in historic negotiations with Western powers over its nuclear program — which will continue on the sidelines in New York — the world will be waiting to see whether Obama and Rouhani become the two nations’ first leaders to meet since the Iranian Revolution. The last time was in 1977, and a handshake between Obama and Rouhani would be a moment for the history books.
But it’s unclear whether either man is up for it. The White House maintains that such a rendezvous is unlikely. When a potential meeting was last rumored — at the U.N. exactly a year ago — the hype climaxed with a phone call that led Iran’s supreme leader to rebuke Rouhani. With Iranian forces battling the Islamic State, Iran may now be trying to exchange cooperation against ISIS with concessions in nuclear negotiations. That may not be an environment conducive to a meeting, but on the other hand, the two certainly have a lot to discuss.
That other great Obama diplomatic initiative — forging peace between Israelis and Palestinians — went up in flames this summer, culminating with a brutal round of fighting in Gaza that left more than 2,000 dead. With U.S.-led peace efforts going nowhere, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said that he will try to circumvent Washington by securing greater recognition for his people before international bodies such as the U.N. (Palestine has already been granted non-member observer status). It is unclear how exactly Abbas plans to implement that strategy, but it would be extremely surprising if the conflict didn’t surface in some fashion.
Call it the wild-card of this year’s General Assembly. Both the United States and Israel are opposed to Palestinian efforts to secure further U.N. recognition by, for example, joining the International Criminal Court. The tension among the three parties is likely to reach a boiling point before it cools off. This may very well be the week for it to reach 212 degrees.
The Obama administration, of course, would probably like nothing more than to be able to ignore the matter for now. U.S. diplomatic efforts are completely dead and Obama is set to leave office without accomplishing what he once labeled a key goal of his administration. One might say that he has enough on his plate without being reminded of this failure.