When President Barack Obama stood at the dais in the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, his remarks were tailored to a domestic electorate slightly unnerved by the recent upsurge of violent anti-American protest in the Muslim world. Obama's firm tone and willingness to challenge the emerging leaders in the Arab world to rein in extremism in their countries provided some reassurance at home that he's keeping his eye on the ball. And his eulogy for slain U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, who in Obama's speech personified the U.S.'s helping hand, framed his remarks in a domestically popular sense of American virtue. U.S. and foreign audiences will have found much to applaud and little to disagree with in the calls for tolerance, mutual respect and the building of bridges between cultures and nations, to which most of the speech was devoted.
But Obama's speech drew a muted response, not least because it offered little of substance on the main challenges facing the Middle East, which was the focus of his address.
Perhaps anticipating Wednesday's address by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy, which made clear that the credibility of anyone proclaiming the values of freedom and dignity in the region would be judged first and foremost by their response to the plight of the Palestinians, Obama offered only tired pablum that could have come any of President George W. Bush's speeches. He urged Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate a two-state solution, and promised support if they do. But most of the international community blames Israel's government for the breakdown of the peace process, and Obama's insistence that "such a peace must come through a just agreement between the parties" will be read simply as a warning against Palestinians' seeking U.N. recognition of their statehood claims. So even if his comments on Arab democracy play well at home, in the Middle East they're undermined by his failure to live up to his promises to press Israel towards a credible peace.
Similarly, on Syria Obama called for the ouster of "a dictator who massacres his own people," but offered no new ideas for realizing that goal and noted the dangers. "We must remain engaged to assure that what began with citizens demanding their rights does not end in a cycle of sectarian violence," he warned, vowing to support Syrians who believe in an inclusive democratic vision. The tools? "Sanctions and consequences for those who persecute, and assistance and support for those who work for this common good."
In other words, business as usual, refraining direct intervention and offering limited support for opposition forces engaged in what is now a war of attrition. Syria's neighbors, already experiencing the consequences of that country's civil war via refugee crises and sectarian tensions, fear that Washington is accepting a drawn out conflict that grinds down the regime, but won't topple Assad before sometime next year a scenario that raises the danger of regional chaos. That seems to fall between the stools of calls by Turkey and Qatar for safe-havens and no-fly zones, and Egypt's effort to broker a political solution by bringing together Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Obama simply dodged specifics on Syria, and seems to be avoiding making uncomfortable choices at least until after the US election.
On Iran, under pressure Israel and its backers to take a tougher line, Obama obliged by calling for a diplomatic solution, but also warning that time "is not unlimited." Although he declined to draw the "red line" for U.S. military action demanded by Netanyahu, he warned that "the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon."
But despite broad support for holding Iran accountable to its NPT obligations, the threat of military action to prevent Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon carries little international support. Morsi also stated the Arab consensus when he insisted that while all countries in the region should meet their NPT obligations, Israel would have to accept the principle of a nuclear-free Middle East. Right now, the Western position, by focusing only on Iran's potential to build weapons and ignoring Israel's nuclear program, amounts to endorsing the principle of an Israeli monopoly on nuclear force in the region. Should Washington attack Iran on the basis of its nuclear program, it will likely do so with an even smaller coalition than President Bush had when he invaded Iraq. A war would be viewed internationally as a colossal diplomatic failure, and it's unlikely that all the blame would be directed at Iran.
Hence President Obama's insistence that the U.S. remains committed to a diplomatic solution. His international partners, having signed on to a de facto blockade of Iran's international trade, may expect more him on the diplomatic front in a second term.