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Obama’s UN Eloquence Misses Foreign Policy Opportunity: View

September 21, 2011

Sept. 22 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama’s speech to the United Nations was elegantly written and eloquently delivered. But it missed an opportunity to promote a strong U.S. role in the world and voice his opposition to this week’s paramount issue: Palestinian plans to seek UN recognition as a nation.

Obama gave Americans a synopsis of the foreign platform of his re-election campaign -- Osama bin Laden was killed on his watch; U.S. combat involvement in Iraq has ended; a transition has begun in Afghanistan, with its government taking the lead in the war there. “The tide of war,” and with it the need for costly American involvement in the world’s conflicts, he said, “is receding.”

We agree, as Obama said, that “it has been a remarkable year.” Yet he seemed to take credit on behalf of the international community for the spread of freedom and human dignity in places such as Egypt, Ivory Coast, Libya, South Sudan and Tunisia. On Libya, the speech would have been stronger, and more honest, if it had made specific mention of the leadership role France and the U.K. had played in the UN Security Council and in the NATO air campaign that helped end Muammar Qaddafi’s dictatorship.

Obama was right in pointing out that progress toward democracy and prosperity is reversible and that building free societies is often more difficult than bringing down dictators. We support Obama’s pledge that the U.S. and others must do their part to help.

Unstated Positions

Oddly, he didn’t address the questions that were probably on the minds of most of the world’s leaders inside the General Assembly chamber: What stand would the U.S. take in supporting freedom movements in countries such as Iran and Syria, and how would the U.S. contribute to the consolidation of democracy in nations where dictators have recently fallen? By failing to articulate specific U.S. positions, Obama seemed more like an observer of the momentous changes in the Middle East than a participant, let alone a leader.

Yet we were struck by the force of Obama’s description of the U.S.’s “unshakable” commitment to Israel. Rarely has a speaker at the UN rostrum spoken so clearly and obviously sympathetically on how Israeli and Jewish history shapes that nation’s security concerns. That point might seem self-evident, but it was a pointed and welcome rebuke to Holocaust deniers or minimizers in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Odder still was his silence on U.S. opposition to establishing a Palestinian state in the current UN session. Obama offered only a tepid endorsement of Palestinian aspirations to independence. Obama might feel that he made his stand against the Palestinian strategy clear by stating that negotiations and compromise offer the only path to Israeli- Palestinian peace and that “there are no shortcuts.” But we believe that most in the audience expected an explicit explanation of U.S. policy and its plan to veto a resolution of recognition in the Security Council.

Obama will have other opportunities to make those points. But he will probably not have a chance to speak to so many world leaders at once. It’s too bad that he didn’t take full advantage of that opportunity.

--Editors: Stuart Seldowitz, James P. Rubin

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To contact the Bloomberg View editorial board: view@bloomberg.net.


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