Middle East | National | News

For Obama at the U.N., what a difference a year makes

President Obama speaks before the U.N. General Assembly, Sept. 24, 2014. (Getty Images)
President Obama speaks before the U.N. General Assembly, Sept. 24, 2014. (Getty Images)

NEW YORK (JTA) – A year ago, when President Barack Obama took the dais at the U.N. General Assembly, his speech focused on Iran’s nuclear program, Syria’s chemical weapons and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He talked about Egypt’s messy transition to democracy and defended America’s actions in Libya.

A year on, Obama’s mind is elsewhere.

Now the president’s focus is on ISIS, the extremist Islamic group that has captured wide swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria. The group, also known as ISIL or Islamic State, was virtually unknown a year ago except as part of the extremist opposition to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

How do some of the other issues Obama discussed in his 2013 U.N. General Assembly speech look through today’s lens? Let’s take a look.


2013: “The world is more stable than it was five years ago. But even a glance at today’s headlines indicates that dangers remain.”

“As recent debates within the United States over Syria clearly show, the danger for the world is not an America that is too eager to immerse itself in the affairs of other countries or to take on every problem in the region as its own. The danger for the world is that the United States, after a decade of war — rightly concerned about issues back home, aware of the hostility that our engagement in the region has engendered throughout the Muslim world — may disengage, creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill. I believe such disengagement would be a mistake. I believe America must remain engaged for our own security. But I also believe the world is better for it.

“We will dismantle terrorist networks that threaten our people. Wherever possible, we will build the capacity of our partners, respect the sovereignty of nations, and work to address the root causes of terror. But when it’s necessary to defend the United States against terrorist attack, we will take direct action.”
ISIS got nary a mention.

Today: “There is a pervasive unease in our world — a sense that the very forces that have brought us together have created new dangers and made it difficult for any single nation to insulate itself from global forces.

“We have not confronted forcefully enough the intolerance, sectarianism, and hopelessness that feeds violent extremism in too many parts of the globe. As we look to the future, one issue risks a cycle of conflict that could derail … progress: and that is the cancer of violent extremism that has ravaged so many parts of the Muslim world.”

This year, ISIS occupied center stage.

2013: “Five years ago, nearly 180,000 Americans were serving in harm’s way, and the war in Iraq was the dominant issue in our relationship with the rest of the world. Today, all of our troops have left Iraq.”

Today: “Iraq has come perilously close to plunging back into the abyss.”

In pursuit of ISIS, America has resumed airstrikes in Iraq and expanded them to Syria. While Obama has vowed not to send U.S. troops back to combat in Iraq, there are some 1,600 U.S. forces in the region in advise-and-assist roles. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said recently that it’s possible America will have to put boots on the ground if it is to defeat ISIS. Dempsey’s comments were quickly disavowed by the White House.

2013: “America and others have worked to bolster the moderate opposition, but extremist groups have still taken root to exploit the crisis. The notion that Syria can somehow return to a prewar status quo is a fantasy. It’s time for Russia and Iran to realize that insisting on Assad’s rule will lead directly to the outcome that they fear: an increasingly violent space for extremists to operate.”

But most of what he had to say about Syria — at 13 paragraphs, the single-largest section of the speech — was about the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons and the U.S.-led effort to destroy Assad’s chemical stockpiles. On the question of whether America would get involved in Syria’s civil war, Obama was clear: “I do not believe that military action — by those within Syria or by external powers — can achieve a lasting peace.”

Today: “Together with our partners, America is training and equipping the Syrian opposition to be a counterweight to the terrorists of ISIL and the brutality of the Assad regime. But the only lasting solution to Syria’s civil war is political — an inclusive political transition that responds to the legitimate aspirations of all Syrian citizens, regardless of ethnicity or creed.”

2013: Obama identified the Israel-Palestinian conflict as one of two issues that “in the near term, America’s diplomatic efforts will focus on.” The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the cause of all the region’s problems, he said, but it has been “a major source of instability for far too long.”

He also talked about how the time was ripe for peace.

“Earlier this year, in Jerusalem, I was inspired by young Israelis who stood up for the belief that peace was necessary, just, and possible. And I believe there’s a growing recognition within Israel that the occupation of the West Bank is tearing at the democratic fabric of the Jewish state,” Obama said. “The time is now ripe for the entire international community to get behind the pursuit of peace. Already, Israeli and Palestinian leaders have demonstrated a willingness to take significant political risks.”

Today: There’s no way to avoid the gloominess of the Israeli-Palestinian picture.

U.S.-sponsored peace talks fell apart in April when the Palestinian Authority signed a unity government agreement with Hamas and Israel pulled out of the negotiations. Even beforehand, however, there was little evidence that the talks were making any significant progress.

This summer, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict turned deadly again when Hamas rocket fire resumed from Gaza and Israel invaded the coastal strip. Some 2,100 Palestinians and more than 70 Israelis were killed in the war.

In his speech to the General Assembly on Sept. 24, Obama offered an implicit rebuke to Israelis’ reactions to the turmoil around them. Noting that the “violence engulfing the region today has made too many Israelis ready to abandon the hard work of peace,” Obama deviated from his prepared remarks and added, “That’s something Israelis should reflect on.”

But he made clear: “The situation in Iraq, Syria and Libya should cure anyone of the illusion that [the Israeli-Palestinian] conflict is the main source of problems in the region.”

2013: A year ago, Obama identified Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons as one of the two issues that American diplomatic efforts would be focusing on in the near term and spent a large chunk of his U.N. speech talking about Iran.

Just two months later, the Obama administration achieved an interim success: A six-month deal was reached to ease some sanctions on Iran in exchange for slowing the growth of Iran’s nuclear capacities while the U.S. and other world powers negotiated with Iran on a final agreement.

Today: The interim agreement, which got a four-month extension that expires in October, is at risk of falling apart. Iran has violated several conditions, including failing to explain research it conducted on nuclear weapon detonators and continuing to work on even more powerful centrifuges to make nuclear fuel.

In the Sept. 24 speech, Iran got hardly a mention: four lines, 78 words in total.