Committing the United States to the Middle East for “the long haul,” President Barack Obama told the United Nations on Tuesday that his priorities in the region are resolving Iran’s contested nuclear program, pursuing a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and encouraging democratic transitions in Syria and other tumultuous Arab states.
Obama’s speech before other world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly focused almost entirely on the Middle East and North Africa, where upheaval has dashed the administration’s plans to ease engagement and pivot to the economic promise of the more stable Asia Pacific region.
The president’s remarks, which lasted about 40 minutes, didn’t exactly break new ground, but confirmed that the U.S. was willing to test a new diplomatic track with Iran and left the threat of military force on the table should international efforts fail to end the bloodshed in Syria.
“There will be times when the breakdown of societies is so great, and the violence against civilians so substantial, that the international community will be called upon to act,” Obama said. “This will require new thinking and some very tough choices.”
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While speaking sternly on what the U.S. says is Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, Obama also sounded some more conciliatory notes, supporting the Iranians’ right to access nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, and saying that the was encouraged by the gestures of newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who is scheduled to speak at the U.N. this afternoon.
“I don’t believe this difficult history can be overcome overnight – the suspicion runs too deep,” Obama said. “But I do believe that if we can resolve the issue of Iran’s nuclear program that can serve as a major step down a long road towards a different relationship – one based on mutual interests and mutual respect.”
Obama suggested that critics of the Libya intervention were wrong in their highlighting of the far-reaching fallout from that action; he argued that the NATO campaign prevented the worse scenario of civil war had then-leader Moammar Gadhafi stayed in power. Though he emphasized at several points his preference for a diplomatic resolution to Syria, he seemed to be signaling that the military option couldn’t be ruled out to prevent the “worst from occurring.”
“Even when America's core interests are not directly threatened, we stand ready to do our part to prevent mass atrocities,” Obama said.
Obama also announced $340 million more in U.S. assistance to Syria, bringing the total U.S. commitment to $1.4 billion, most of it in humanitarian and nonlethal aid. But he stressed that neither money nor military action was a substitute for an enduring resolution to the conflict, which has raged for more than two years, killing 100,000 people and forcing millions from their homes.
To achieve that, Obama said, Iran and Russia would have to stop insisting that Syrian President Bashar Assad remain in power, especially after the conclusions of international weapons inspectors show that his regime was likely behind a deadly chemical weapons attack Aug. 21.
“A leader who slaughtered his citizens and gassed children to death cannot regain the legitimacy to lead a badly fractured country,” Obama said. “The notion that Syria can return to a pre-war status quo is a fantasy.”
Obama also addressed other restive spots in the region. He chided Egypt’s military, which ousted the elected president Mohammed Morsi, for practices such as reinstating sweeping emergency laws that aren’t in line with restoring democracy. He pointedly said that the U.S. was withholding some military aid pending signs that Egypt was returning to the path of an “inclusive” democratic state.
“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. “But we will not stop asserting principles that are consistent with our ideals, whether that means opposing the use of violence as a means of suppressing dissent, or supporting the principles embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”