Understanding Obama's UN Speech

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Pro-Israeli protesters outside the United Nations in Manhattan. (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

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.


Steve Clemons


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Comments [20]

Emmanuel Turgis

Detuned racist national radio. Defacing Jay. A regime. Detuning. War.

Sep. 21 2011 05:51 PM
snoop from Brooklyn


So Katrina and all these physical and economic disasters might be the result of Bush's concurrance with the UN's 1947 declaration in 2005? Assuming that is true, why then, did Katrina destroy a primarily Democratic city that didn't vote for George Bush? Why didn't Katrina hit Texas perhaps, or Kennebunkport, or the White House? Why were most of the victims primarily the poorest, and least politically influential residents of that city, and probably, if they voted, Democrats who did not support Bush? Is whomever or whatever that was behind the Katrina disaster that clueless about American politics?

Further, if these events really are terrorist attacks on our homeland, should we not react as such? Shouldn't we attack whomever or whatever has engaged in killing our citizens and destroying our economy the same way as any other terrorist attack? Or do we give in to the terrorists and give them what they want, which, according to your outlook, is apparently unstinting support for Israel?

Sep. 21 2011 11:44 AM

I wonder how people in my home state would feel if the unauthorized immigrants to California were to declare themselves independent of the laws governing this nation. Would not the teeming masses from the southern nations see the State of La Raza as an opportunity to migrate to a place that had more natural resources, and thus create a population boom, such as the one that has erupted in the East?

Sep. 21 2011 11:39 AM
Zach from UWS

Lol. Watch out everyone. jgarbuz's invisible friend in the sky will smite you if you don't unquestioningly support Israeli apartheid.

Sep. 21 2011 11:12 AM
jgarbuz from Queens


You ask why when the US and European economies are falling apart is so much being concentrated on this issue? Well, maybe it's a coincidence, but isn't it coincidental that ever since Bush came out in favor of a Palestinian state in 2005 that we got Katrina and every other physical and economic disaster? And the EU, which has always backed the Palestinian cause, is falling apart too. And the Arabs states are all in chaos! Meanwhile, Israel's economy has never been better! Coincidence? Maybe. Maybe not.

Sep. 21 2011 11:03 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

In 1947 the UN General Assembly authorized a "Jewish state" and an "Arab state" to arise with Jerusalem as an inernationized city. The JEws reluctantly accepted, but the Arabs not only violently rejected, but raped the UN CHarter by having 5 Arab armies in invade to destroy the newly authorized "Jewish State."

Abbas today, and no Arab country, recognizes Israel as the Jewish state. They are all violators of the UN Charter, but insist that a "Palestinian" state, which never existed in all of history, be imposed on Israel without Israel's permission. Even though Israel is in possession of all this land it acquired as a result of failed Arab aggression. It's quite unbelievable.If Obama doesn't stop it, he's out as far as my vote is concerned.

Sep. 21 2011 10:53 AM
snoop from brooklyn

Amazing to watch. With our economy falling apart, the focus of our government is on saving Isreal from the non-event of Palistine attaining full UN membership in the General Assembly.

What is tragic is that as the Muslim world is going through a once in a generation change, we are now on record opposing membership for Palestine in the General Assembly. Our opposition to the move will not stop it. Once membership is granted, nothing will really change. All we have done by opposing membership is further damage any credibility we might have had as honest brokers in the region.

And, a question which I anyone has yet to answer: why do we care? Jerusalem is thousands of miles away. There is no oil there. What, precisely, is our strategic interest in going to the mat for Israel?

Sep. 21 2011 10:46 AM

Wow. The conversation just turned to why Palestinians are probably not as important as a random list of other issues. Maybe we could actually address some of the other issues if the world could finally move past the Israeli/Palestinian land dispute -- an issue that seems to be fueling a large portion of the world's violence and consuming a large portion of the world's problem solving resources.

Sep. 21 2011 10:35 AM
Zeggae from Nj

Kinda ironic how Obama talked about "freedom, self determination, dignity, raising flag" in Juba South Sudan. Yet he will deny the same for Palestinians.

Sep. 21 2011 10:33 AM

Did you know that UN employees pay no taxes? on anything?

they have a really sweet card issued by state dept., went out w a diplomat last week, his contribution to the restaurant tab was whipping out his "no tax" card. let's see, 8% of a land rover... niiiice

Sep. 21 2011 10:32 AM
superf88 from Earth

After yesterday's conversation that chinese solar panel companies have defeated an american solar panel company simply because the chinese are willing to pollute more, it seems awfully silly for men and women to be bickering about lines on a map. There is no map, there is just a global environment that deserves a bit of respect...

Sep. 21 2011 10:28 AM
Martin Chuzzlewit from Manhattan

John from office....we won't be missing much...

"When I took office...
When I came here...
When I..........
When I........"

This guy is an embarrassment.

Sep. 21 2011 10:28 AM
petals from bkln

wnyc, I don't understand what you're doing. you keep announcing israel, pro-israel sentiments, but there are lots of people/countries that don't agree and are more pro-Palestinian on this issue. there are COUNTER pro-israel groups, including orthodox jews who want to free palestine. why aren't you announcing that? It makes wnyc seem really bias when you keep giving pro-israel so much air time. isn't this 'national public radio'?

Sep. 21 2011 10:28 AM
Jeff Pappas from Dumbo

Too bad Obama ( winner of the Nobel Peace Prize ) has sunk to the lowest most dangerous Hypocrisy , normally reserved for Hawkish Christian Republicans.
Let Israel go , let Democracy grow, let Palestine become it's own country!

Sep. 21 2011 10:27 AM
Martin Chuzzlewit from Manhattan

Bravo, Esther. Yes, such a simple but efffective step forward.....the Palestinian refusal tells the whole story.

Sep. 21 2011 10:26 AM

Esther has hit the nail on the head. I would like to hear some reporters ask Abbas or the other Palestinian representatives if they also support the right of Israel to exist. This is something we have not heard from them and in my opinion is the main problem holding everything back right now.

Sep. 21 2011 10:26 AM
john from office

Brian, you switched away from the speech to dwell on Israel. Did you think that maybe your listeners want to hear the speech??. There is this endless fixation on Israel, a country I support, but I am an American and care about America. WHAT IS BEST FOR AMERICA.

Sep. 21 2011 10:23 AM
Esther from usa

Would have been better if Obama would say for Palestinians to recognize "Israel as a Jewish state" which I'm afraid we have yet to hear from any Palestinian leader. That's a problem, don't you think?

Sep. 21 2011 10:23 AM
Jay F.

Every seven years, the whole U.N. assembly should be moved to the poorest country, or the most war torn country in the world.

Sep. 21 2011 10:18 AM
john from office

The UN is a waste of time. It serves no purpose othr then to allow members to live well in Manhattan. While we provide 25% of the cost of running the UN. We should leave the UN and it will fall apart.

Remembr Lybia was on its way to chair the human right commission in the UN, it is a joke.

Sep. 21 2011 10:14 AM

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