Bad Day at Turtle Bay

President Barack Obama delivered his first policy address to the United Nations at the opening of the General Assembly in New York yesterday.  In other years, the gathering produces little beyond a week of traffic headaches for New Yorkers.  But anticipation for the opening of this year’s session was heightened by the prospect of a direct confrontation on the world stage between Obama and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Obama went first and delivered a speech notable for its numerous and repeated repudiations of the Bush administration.  President Obama said that in his nine months in office, the United States has made great strides toward undoing Bush-era policies that had rankled many in the world body.

“For those who question the character and cause of my nation, I ask you to look at the concrete actions we have taken in just nine months.

“On my first day in office, I prohibited — without exception or equivocation — the use of torture by the United States of America.  (Applause.)  I ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed, and we are doing the hard work of forging a framework to combat extremism within the rule of law.  Every nation must know: America will live its values, and we will lead by example.”

Obama said that the United States’ actions to “re-engage the United Nations” made it incumbent on the world not to fall back on a “reflexive anti-Americanism,” of the past but to join together to meet the world’s challenges based on four “pillars” of cooperation:  nuclear non-proliferation, the pursuit of peace, preservation of the planet, and a global economy that provides opportunity for all the world’s people.

On those nuclear weapons, Obama said that his administration would pursue a new nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia, support measures to strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and work to safeguard and secure nuclear material. 

On Iran’s and North Korea’s illicit nuclear weapons programs, Obama said that those governments “must be held accountable” if they choose to ignore international calls for them to abandon their weapons programs.  But he also said that the United States would “respect their rights as members of the community of nations,” a reference to Tehran’s and Pyongyang’s position that all countries have a right to develop peaceable nuclear programs under the NPT.

Obama made mention of trouble spots in Darfur, East Timor, and Haiti, but he saved the bulk of his comments on pursuing world peace for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  The president drew the loudest applause of his address when he chastised Israel for continuing to construct settlements on the West Bank.  “[W]e continue to emphasize that America does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.”  The Palestinian Authority came in for a lighter rebuke; the president only saying that it should “stop incitement against Israel.”

Most startling was his call for a Palestinian state, but in a different form than any American president had proposed. “And the goal is clear: Two states living side by side in peace and security — a Jewish state of Israel, with true security for all Israelis; and a viable, independent Palestinian state with contiguous territory that ends the occupation that began in 1967, and realizes the potential of the Palestinian people.”

A “contiguous” Palestinian state — connecting the Gaza Strip and the West Bank — can only be accomplished by cutting Israel in half.

The president called for global cooperation on combating climate change and recovering from the worldwide recession.  Obama said that while the West has “an obligation to lead” on reducing carbon emissions, emerging economies such as China and India should “do more to reduce their carbon output without inhibiting growth.”  He called for “wealthy nations” to open up their markets and do more to help the developing world.  Poorer countries must root out corruption and promote growth of the private sector.

Obama concluded with a familiar pitch.  He said that the world wanted change and would not tolerate for long “those who are on the wrong side of history.”  The president said that the time to tackle big challenges is now and said the United States was ready “to begin a new chapter of international cooperation,” based on a recognition of shared international responsibilities.

But the president’s call to a new international seriousness was diluted somewhat by the very next speaker.  Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi took to the podium for his first address to the General Assembly, a bizarre and rambling extemporaneous ninety-minute diatribe that touched on everything from swine flu to the Kennedy assassination. 

Qaddafi began by endorsing Obama, saying that the world wished he could be president for life and rejoicing that a “son of Africa” was in the White House.  He said all medicines should be free, called for reparations for colonialism in Africa, chastised the U.N. for being unable to prevent or stop what he numbered at sixty-five conflicts since the Security Council was established, and called for U.N. headquarters to be moved out of New York.  Except perhaps for the last two points, Qaddafi’s speech served as the comic relief to cut the tension between Obama’s and Ahmadinejad’s remarks.

Ahmadinejad spoke to a mostly empty hall late in the afternoon session, long after Obama had left.  Canadian diplomats announced earlier that they would boycott Ahmadinejad’s speech in protest of his recent reiteration of belief that the Holocaust is a lie.  German representatives also vowed to walk out if Ahmadinejad denied the Holocaust and called on all European representatives to follow suit.  The United States made no such announcement, however the U.S. seats in the assembly stood empty during the speech.

Ahmadinejad skipped the Holocaust denial but recited the customary list of grievances against the West.  He did not mention Obama by name, and made only oblique references to the United States.  He railed against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying that they have only led to an increase in the conditions they sought to rectify.  “It is not acceptable for some who are several thousand kilometers away from the Middle East would send their troops for military intervention and for spreading war, terror,…and intimidation in the whole region,” he said. 

He called for reform in the structure of the United Nations, specifically the elimination of the veto power for the five permanent members of the Security Council.  And he said that “expansionist capitalism” would suffer the same fate as Marxism.

Ahmadinejad took the occasion to declare himself the legitimately elected leader of Iran, saying that the disputed June 12 presidential election was “glorious and fully democratic.”  He confidently asserted that Iranians had entrusted him with a “large majority” and a “heavy responsibility.”  Earlier, thousands of Iranian expatriates gathered outside the U.N. to protest the election with shouts of “Liar!” and “Death to the dictator!”

Of Israel, Ahmadinejad said, “The awakening of nations and the expansion of freedom worldwide will no longer allow them to continue their hypocrisy and vicious attitudes."

He added, "How can crimes of the occupiers against defenseless women and children and destruction of their homes, farms, hospitals and schools be supported unconditionally by certain governments?"

No mention was made of Iran’s nuclear program ahead of next week’s meeting between negotiators from the U.S., Britain, France, China Russia, Germany, and Iran. 

In the end, the dramatic confrontation between Obama and Ahmadinejad did not materialize and Qaddafi emerged from the day carrying most of the headlines and attention.  Ahmadinejad’s speech was uncharacteristically subdued, as Obama’s was characteristically conciliatory to world opinion. That was likely music to the delegates’ ears after eight years of the comparatively strident words of George W. Bush.

But American policy — toward Israel, the U.N. and the rest of the world — was dramatically altered.  It is now up to Israel and Iran to settle their differences without Israel’s hitherto most steadfast ally.  

Cartoon by Brett Noel.