Understanding Obama's UN Speech

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 Pro-Israeli protesters outside the United Nations in Manhattan.

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, President Obama spoke at the UN Tuesday, as the controversy over Palestinian request to be recognized as a state continued. Steve Clemons, Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation and Editor-in-Chief of AtlanticLIVE, analyzes the speech and what is at stake.


Today President Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly. Chief among the topics he touched on is the idea of a U.N.-recognized Palestinian state.

A Different Approach

Steve Clemons said though the president speaks at the General Assembly every year, the act is far from a formality. He says this will be the first time the president has addressed the relationship between Israel and Palestine. 

The president has used this as an important opportunity to talk about efforts of other nations to stand against nuclear weapons and the proliferation of WMD materials. He may be looking at this as an opportunity to talk about what’s happening in the Arab spring and the importance of supporting democracies around the world. I think that will be a key part of his speech today.

Clemons said a large difference between the current president and former President Bush in their relationship to the U.N. can be traced to Bush’s struggle against the U.N. in sanctioning the war in Iraq.

I think George Bush had a very different style and posture than President Obama has adopted. President Bush.. used [his addresses to the U.N.] as an opportunity to talk about America’s great causes in the world. His speeches were high on the issues of values and democracy and the righteousness and the rightness of the United States in pursuing this around the world, and trying to use that moment in the U.N. to shame other leaders into—if not behaving—into sort of fearing what the United States might bring along.

While Clemons said that could be an effective strategy, it is quite different from the one the current president is likely to bring to today’s assembly. 

Everyone has their own style and things that they bring to the General Assembly, but for them it’s a moment of theater in which they’re trying to communicate to the rest of the world their national priorities.

The United States generally uses their time at the podium to outline its national idea of what responsible global stakeholding looks like.

The Speech Begins

Saying “peace is hard”, the president began by speaking about the beginning of the United Nations.  He brought up the two wars that the United States is engaged in but said “the tide of war is receding,” and he said at the end of this year the United State’s war with Iraq would be over and progress would be made toward ending the engagement in Afghanistan.   

The president said we are now in a position to end the wars from a position of strength, noting the rise of Ground Zero and the capture and execution of Osama bin Laden. 

Turning to the issue of Israel, the president reviewed the “extraordinary transformation” brought forth by the Arab spring and the referendum to create South Sudan.

The President acknowledged the depth and importance of America’s friendship with Israel and the endurance of the Jewish people, yet did not speak against the recognition of Palestine as expected.

Israel deserves recognition, normal relations with its neighbors, and friends of the Palestinians do them no favors by ignoring this truth, just as friends of Israel must recognize the need to pursue a two-state solution with a secure Israel next to an independent Palestine.

A Missed Opportunity

Clemons said the subtext seemed to be that the president was supportive of an independent Palestine, but only as a result of negotiations with Israel, rather than as a decision by the UN.

The problem is that in the eyes of the rest of the world, they see the United States as somewhat acquiescing to the reality that there are no negotiations, and not using obvious leverage that we have to encourage Israel to be more forthcoming.

He said one unfortunate side is that the part of the Arab world that does have the attention of Israel is Hamas, who have met success in trying to move Israel’s policies through violence, whereas moderate Palestinians who have tried to address the issue through nonviolent means have never had access to the same sort of attention or results.

What makes the attempt to use the sanctioning of the U.N. so interesting, said Clemons, is that it is a nonviolent attempt to make significant change in a way that cannot be ignored. He said the status quo is unsustainable, and that “Israel is missing its moment in all of this”, and that the United States and Israel lost an opportunity in failing to recognize this resolution.

It doesn’t solve any of the problems on borders and security and kind of broad issues, but recognizing the broad issue that Palestine is, and is sort of functioning as a state with these unresolved issues... actually fits with Israel’s policy, and it would have required a de facto recognition back of Israel’s right to exist.