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UNGA and a Troubled Mideast

Interviewee: Stewart M. Patrick, Senior Fellow and Director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
September 21, 2012

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With the annual UN General Assembly now under way, major issues this year focus on the Middle East, says Stewart M. Patrick, CFR's UN expert. Two of the "lightning rod" issues, he says, will be what to do to stop the rising bloodshed in Syria, and the continuing problem of Iran's nuclear development. And, he adds, "in the background of all this, although not specifically on the UN agenda, is the incredible turmoil throughout the Muslim world" currently aimed against the United States. Patrick, taking note of Obama's past efforts to win over the Muslim world, says "the notion that one president, even a well-intentioned one, could somehow overcome several decades of legacy of support for authoritarian governments in much of the Muslim world has been exposed as an illusion."

The annual meeting of the UN General Assembly formally begins today, but the speech-making in which speakers from every country, including President Obama, will participate starts on September 25. What do you think the main topics of interest are going to be?

Certainly [one of the] major lightning rod issues [is] going to be the situation in Syria. In Syria, there are estimates that up to 25,000 people have been killed, many of them civilians, over the past eighteen months. The inability of the UN Security Council to come to some agreement on the way forward due to what is perceived in the United States as the obstructionism of Russia and China [who have vetoed U.S.-backed resolutions], will certainly be high on the agenda and will undoubtedly figure in President Obama's speech.

[Another] is the question of what the United Nations, and again the Security Council being the focal point, is prepared to do to confront Iran over its continued enrichment activities, particularly in the wake of the International Atomic Energy Agency's recent report on the pace of Iranian enrichment activities. In the background is the increased saber rattling on the part of the Israelis, particularly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's statements that the United States must set red lines if it expects continued patience on the part of the Israelis.

What about the recent worldwide condemnation of the United States in the Muslim world?

Of course in the background of all this, although not specifically on the UN agenda, is the incredible turmoil throughout the Muslim world. It's been caused by the publicity surrounding an extraordinarily amateur, clumsy, and obviously offensive film about the Prophet Muhammad that has really antagonized the Muslims and has created and exposed a huge fault line regarding the balance between free speech, which obviously is healthier in the United States, and the defamation of religion, which is really a red line for many people.

President Obama's speech will be quite interesting as he tries to balance his known efforts at improving relations with the Muslim world, as evidenced by his speech in Cairo in 2009, and public outrage here over the continuing attacks on U.S. facilities, as well as the situation in Afghanistan where there's been so many killings of U.S. and UN forces by Afghan police and troops.

Absolutely. President Obama began the early months of his administration with the major speech in Cairo in which he talked about turning a new leaf in U.S. relations with the Muslim world and the Arab world, in particular, and which would be focused on advancing social welfare and human rights in the region and being less tied to authoritarian regimes. In a sense, he was offering the Muslim world a new arrangement. At that point, of course, Barack Obama was extraordinarily popular throughout much of the world, and I think there was great hope within the Muslim world. And even in last year's speech at the UN General Assembly, a big focus was on the great hope created by the Arab Spring and the trends that were occurring there. It's obvious that things have gotten much more complicated, and the notion that one president, even a well-intentioned one, could somehow overcome several decades of legacy of support for authoritarian governments has been exposed as an illusion.

There are also tremendous religious and cultural differences between many parts of the Muslim world in terms of what is permissible to actually be said. So in terms of his international audience, he is going to have to again explain the nature of the United States and the nature of a liberal polity that can condemn certain activities as being hateful or inappropriate, but on the other hand, the price in the sense of liberty is allowing people to say reprehensible things, and the government has no recourse other than to do that.

Because this is taking place six or seven weeks before the presidential election, Obama will have to be on guard not to appear overly apologetic because that plays into the Romney campaign's view and the view of some of his critics that he has shown weakness rather than strength, and that has, in effect, invited some of these attacks.

One of the issues that the president touted in his last address at the UN General Assembly was the intervention in Libya. Also, domestically, he's recently touted the creation, for instance, of this Atrocity Prevention Board, which is supposed to help the U.S. government prevent and respond to atrocities around the world, especially when governments make war against their people now. This poses a major dilemma for President Obama in the current circumstance, because as casualties top 25,000 in Syria, you have a real-world example in which the international community is standing by because the permanent members of the Security Council can't reach an agreement on a way forward in Syria. And it will be interesting to see how the president characterizes that dilemma. One would imagine that he would attempt to frame this as other countries, particularly Russian and China, not being willing to step up to the plate, to preserve innocent lives.

In Syria, what started out as a democratic protest has turned into a religious war, and it's not clear, if the Assad forces were defeated, whether U.S. interests would benefit from having Islamic militants in charge.

The uncertainty as to what would happen in the aftermath of Assad's violent fall is something that has so far had the Obama administration, at least on an official level, shy away from what Mitt Romney has called for, which is actually arming the Syrian opposition. There are a number of questions that are raised by the Syrian conundrum. One of them is: What are the options for the United States if there continue to be blockage on the Security Council? Would it consider trying to form a coalition of the willing outside the auspices of the UN Security Council, as the Bush administration did in Iraq in 2003 and as the Clinton administration did in 1999 with respect to Kosovo?

The other issue is: It's all well and good to propound a responsibility to protect, but what do you do when what has started as a government in effect making war on its people turns into a civil war, including a civil war that may be increasingly dominated, according to a number of reports, by Islamic extremists? The argument for doing something is if Syria devolves into total chaos and ungovernability that could create increased safe havens for al-Qaeda and some of its affiliated organizations. That could spawn, in addition to great sectarian bloodshed, an Afghanistan situation in which it is used as a launching pad for many forms of terrorist activity.

One thing we haven't mentioned yet is the Palestinian situation. Last year, of course, the Palestinian Authority sought to get recognition as a state, and that flopped badly because of U.S. and other countries' opposition in the Security Council. What's happening now on that issue?

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has recently said that he will ask the UN General Assembly this month to have Palestine declared a non-member observer state, which gives it some benefits, although not, obviously, full membership. The big question here is what Washington will do. Last year, there was a lot of pressure placed to prevent Palestinian statehood from getting enough Security Council support to even come up to a vote. This latest move, however, would stand a greater chance after the recent Non-Aligned [Movement] summit held in Iran. Some 120 members of the NAM said that they are prepared to support this observer status, and it only requires a majority vote in the General Assembly, and it can't be vetoed. The big question again is: Will the United States and also Israel, which have enormous leverage over the Palestinian Authority, try to block it?

The other Palestinian gambit was to begin to join specialized agencies of the United Nations, which is also a reasonably straightforward proposition. They did join UNESCO last year, and again after U.S. pressure, did not attempt to join other organizations, which it could have--for instance, the World Health Organization or even the International Atomic Energy Agency. The dilemma for the United States is that if the Palestinians were to proceed down that track, the United States by virtue of a provision in U.S. law would be required to stop funding those agencies. And you can just imagine how deleterious that would be to U.S. interests if they did so. It is unclear whether or not the Palestinians will try to go down that road again.

President Morsi of Egypt is coming to the UN General Assembly, and he was invited to Washington back in July when Secretary Clinton visited Egypt, but he's not on the president's schedule yet. And of course, there's been a lot of publicity, given the fact that Netanyahu's aides reportedly asked for an appointment with the president at the time he's coming to New York, but were told Obama's schedule was filled. Do you think the president could meet with Morsi without meeting with Netanyahu?

I think politically it would be very difficult for the president to meet with the Egyptian leader without meeting with the Israeli prime minister. There's definite antipathy on a personal level, it would appear, between Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu, and certainly, if the president had any desire to meet the Israeli prime minister, he could've already signaled he would do so.

What is going on here is a significant pique on the part of the White House to what appears to be Netanyahu's effort to insert himself into the U.S. presidential election, including a rare public rebuke that those who are unwilling to set red lines have no moral right to try to restrain Israel. On the other hand, that statement is a little disingenuous because the Israelis themselves have not set any red lines, and it would be unusual for any great power to set a specific red line. But this plays into the Romney narrative that the Obama administration has effectively thrown Israel "under a bus." And there are some differences between the two campaigns. President Obama is on record as saying that he will not allow an Iranian bomb, whereas Romney has been a bit broader in saying that he wouldn't allow Iranian nuclear capability, which presumably comes earlier in the process than that.

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