Last September, President Barack Obama vowed in his annual appearance before the UN General Assembly to work for "an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations--an independent, sovereign state of Palestine." In today's speech to the General Assembly, he avoided all promises, pledges, and plans. He instead argued that the UN should not offer Palestinians a "a short cut" on the road to statehood.
As is tradition with General Assembly speeches, Obama toured the foreign policy waterfront. He recounted the good news--U.S. military operations are ending in Iraq; transition to local control has begun in Afghanistan; Osama bin Laden no longer leads al-Qaeda; South Sudan won independence; and popular uprisings swept autocrats from power in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. The president left no doubt that the United States deserved credit for many of these successes.
The president also cited numerous threats: the continued specter of weapons of mass destruction, grinding poverty that "that punishes our children," diseases that travel swiftly across borders, and a changing climate, to name just a few.
But the topic on everyone's mind was U.S. opposition to Palestine's pending bid for statehood. Obama vigorously defended his opposition to a UN vote. While reaffirming his support for an independent Palestine, he warned a "genuine peace can only be realized between Israelis and Palestinians."
Obama aggressively backed Israel's right to exist. Speaking with uncharacteristic bluntness to its critics, he warned that "the friends of the Palestinians do them no favors by ignoring" the security threats facing Israel and that "Israel deserves normal relations with its neighbors."
But Obama offered no strategy or timetable for bringing the two sides together. He merely urged the UN to "encourage the parties to sit down together, to listen to each other, and to understand each other's hopes and fears." His silence on next steps was an implicit admission that the United States has few cards to play.
In defending his opposition to immediate statehood for Palestine, Obama was speaking as much to American voters as he was to the foreign dignitaries gathered at the UN. Just yesterday, GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry accused Obama of pursuing a "naïve, arrogant, misguided, and dangerous" Middle East policy. Not to be outdone, rival GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney charged Obama with having created "an unmitigated diplomatic disaster."
Obama's speech may have blunted these domestic criticisms, but it probably moved few foreign leaders. Shortly after he spoke, French President Nicolas Sarkozy called for the a General Assembly vote to grant the Palestinians "observer status," a step on the road to statehood.
Obama's immediate challenge is to persuade Mahmoud Abbas to drop his request for a UN Security Council vote on Palestinian statehood. Even if he succeeds, no one knows what will happen next in the West Bank or the rest of the Arab world.
The longer-range challenge is to find a way to reconcile the legitimate aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians. Obama began his presidency confident that he could do just that. More than two-and-half years later, however, much of the world doubts that Obama can deliver on his promise.