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Obama Just Gave His Most Significant Foreign Policy Speech

Getty/Stan Honda

President Barack Obama’s speech Tuesday to the United Nations was his most significant foreign policy statement since becoming president. It showed he had clearly learned something from the recent “red line” fiasco in Syria. The speech also displayed what has always been the most attractive feature of Obama’s foreign policy, one that clearly sets him off from his predecessor—his willingness to court erstwhile enemies and adversaries, or to put it in negative terms, his not possessing what my former colleague Peter Scoblic called an “us versus them” view of the world.

The speech was a departure in one very obvious way. Two years ago, the Obama administration had announced a “pivot to Asia” in its foreign policy, but Obama’s speech to the U.N. was almost entirely devoted to the greater Middle East with a footnote here or there to Africa. Obama mentioned China only once—as one of the nations engaged in nuclear weapons talks with Iran—and didn’t mention Japan or South Korea at all. That reflects the way the world is: The Middle East is oil—still the lifeblood of the global economy—and the Middle East continues to suffer from tectonic fault lines created by the Age of Empire in Europe.

There were specific departures in the speech from positions that Obama has taken in the past. The one that will get the most attention, and rightly so, is American policy toward Iran, but the speech also included departures in American policy toward Syria, Israel and the Palestinians, and Egypt and the Arab Spring.

Obama declared his willingness to pursue a diplomatic solution with Iran over its nuclear program. Of course, he had done that before, but it was usually punctuated by a threat of military action if Iran did develop a nuclear weapon. That threat lingered in the background in his speech; in the foreground, he acknowledged Iranian fears of the United States, dating from our helping to overthrow Iran’s government in 1953; he welcomed Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s overtures to the United States; and he said he was instructing Secretary of State John Kerry to meet with Iran’s foreign minister—the first such meeting between the country’s leading diplomats since 2007. The White House has also said it is “keeping the door open” to a meeting between Obama and Rouhani.

If Obama does achieve a rapprochement between the United States and Iran, it could have repercussions throughout the Middle East. It could make a political settlement in Syria possible. It could ease negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. Israel’s hardliners would no longer have an excuse for ignoring the West Bank occupation, and Hamas would no longer have international support in refusing to back a two-state solution. And, finally, of course, a rapprochement could give the United States a strong ally in reducing the threat of terrorist movements in the Middle East and South Asia.

In Syria, the White House had initially hoped for opposition military successes that would force Bashar al Assad to leave office. Afterwards, they hoped that military successes would at least lead to a political settlement favorable to the opposition and laid out the hope that a military strike against Assad in retaliation for his use of chemical weapons would damage his overall military chances. But in Obama’s speech, he came out foursquare for a political settlement. While condemning Assad, he suggested that both sides to the conflict were imperfect.  He warned of the danger of “extremists trying to hijack change,” and he declared that a “political settlement cannot be reached without addressing the legitimate fears of Alawites and other minorities.” He also held out the possibility of Iran joining the settlement talks. “I welcome the influence of all nations that can help bring about a peaceful resolution of Syria’s civil war,” he declared. (The emphasis was in Obama’s prepared text.)

While recognizing that Russia’s Vladimir Putin must play a vital role in any political settlement, he also inserted a clever dig at the Russian’s diplomacy. “We are no longer in a Cold War. There’s no Great Game to be won, nor does America have any interest in Syria beyond the well-being of its people, the stability of its neighbors, the elimination of chemical weapons, and ensuring it does not become a safe-haven for terrorists,” Obama declared.

At the beginning of Obama’s first term, he made resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a major priority, and in his initial speeches and diplomacy, he presented the conflict as one between two peoples with equal moral claims to have their own state. That infuriated the Israelis and set off a carousel of recriminations and botched negotiations that ended in mid-2011 in Obama giving up on trying to revive the peace process and turning toward attempting to conciliate his critics in America’s Jewish community. In Obama’s 2011 and 2012 speeches to the United Nations, he emphasized America’s “unshakeable” commitment to Israel and its “very real security concerns” while giving scant notice to the “aspirations of the Palestinian people.” In his 2012 speech, he devoted one out of sixty paragraphs to Israel and the Palestinians.

But in this speech, he made resolving the conflict one of America’s two greatest priorities in the region, along with reaching a nuclear agreement with Iran. And his description of the respective moral claims of the Israelis and Palestinians was conspicuously even-handed. Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry may still fail—I would give an agreement with Iran a greater chance of succeeding—but Obama showed that he has gone back to where he was during the Cairo speech in his first year in office. The peace process is once again getting Obama’s attention.

In the immediate aftermath of the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Obama had expressed unbounded optimism about the Arab Spring. In a State Department speech in May 2011, he compared the demonstrators in the streets to the American revolutionaries of the 1770s and to the civil rights leaders of the 1950s. And that optimism led the administration to support intervention in Libya not merely to prevent atrocities, but to achieve a victory for the opposition. It also nourished hopes that the opposition would be victorious in Syria.

But these uprisings, like those in Europe in 1848 or across the Third World after World War II, have taken two steps forward, only to take one and three-quarters steps backward. Obama was blind-sided by Assad’s refusal to step down and by the military coup in Egypt, which he has still refused to call a coup. In his speech, Obama expressed his realization at “just how hard” the transition from dictatorship to democracy had proven to be, and he laid out a diplomatic strategy heavy on Realpolitik.

In describing the events in Egypt, Obama blamed President Mohamed Morsi for his own overthrow. “Morsi,” Obama said, “was democratically elected, but proved unwilling or unable to govern in a way that was fully inclusive. The interim government that replaced him responded to the desires of millions." While criticizing the new military regime for making “decisions inconsistent with inconclusive government,” he expressed his intention to maintain amicable relations with it. The United States,” he declared, will maintain a constructive relationship with the interim government that promotes core interests like the Camp David Accords and counter-terrorism.” Obama then broadened that approach to a general pronouncement about American policy. “The United States,” he said, “will at times work with governments that do not meet the highest international expectations, but who work with us on our core interests.”

That represents a return to Obama’s earlier diplomacy and a repudiation of the idealism and interventionism of the last few years. To be sure, Obama did devote part of his speech to America’s commitment to “the hard work of foreign freedom and democracy” and “supporting the principles embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” but he foresaw doing so by “asserting principles” rather than by intervening in other countries. And if what he meant by “asserting principles” was his criticism of the Egyptian military for measures “inconsistent with inclusive government,” then the authoritarian rulers need not fear an American tongue-lashing. He did urge the United Nations to be prepared to intervene to prevent atrocities within nations, but by assigning this task to the United Nations, he denied the United States a leading role in doing so.

In all, Obama laid out in his U.N. speech a foreign policy that backs away from the policy he embraced in early 2011 during the first months of the Arab Spring. That clearly reflects the lessons Obama took from his failure to win support in Congress or internationally for an attack on Syria. “The United States has a hard-earned humility when it comes to our ability to determine events inside other countries. The notion of American empire may be useful propaganda, but it isn’t borne out by America’s current policy or public opinion. Indeed, as the recent debate within the United States over Syria clearly showed, the danger for the world is not an America that is eager to immerse itself in the affairs of other countries, or take on every problem in the region as its own.”

The danger of a turn back toward Realpolitik is that Obama will abandon even a declaratory attempt to promote human rights and the stirrings of popular rule in the Middle East. But in respect to Obama’s willingness to deal with Iran and to throw America’s weight behind a resolution of the century-old Israel-Palestinian conflict, Obama’s new turn could lead to astonishingly positive results in the Middle East. Jim Mann, the author of The Obamians, the best introduction to Obama’s foreign policy, cautioned me the other day against accepting the image of second-term presidents as lame ducks. In foreign policy, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton achieved their greatest successes in their second terms, and the same may turn out to be true of Barack Obama.