Politics & Government

U.N. session will test whether Obama can deliver

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be at the U.N. for the opening of the General Assembly.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be at the U.N. for the opening of the General Assembly. Farzaneh Khademian/Abaca Press/MCT

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is about to make his first pilgrimage to the United Nations, where he'll be under scrutiny from fellow world leaders, much as he is domestically, to see whether he can deliver results as well as rhetoric.

Obama took office eight months ago and made a sharp turn in foreign policy, stretching out a proverbial hand to Iran, striking a different tone with the Muslim world and promising cooperation with other countries. Just this week, he scaled back a European missile-defense system that Russia bitterly opposed.

The shifts have won plaudits from governments and publics across much of the world. Now, however, it's crunch time, said foreign diplomats, policy analysts and others. Can Obama deliver results on the world's toughest issues?

"The president needs to convert his widespread popularity in much of the world to effectiveness in much of the world," said Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a centrist Washington policy institute. "Leadership is not just telling people what you want."

"Results still need to come. That's something we all know," said a senior European diplomat who requested anonymity to speak more frankly. "But it would be over-ambitious to think results would come very quickly."

The question marks hang most heavily over Obama's policy toward Iran and its suspected nuclear-weapons program.

The United States and five other nations agreed to hold direct talks with Iran beginning Oct. 1, even though top officials in Tehran say that Iran's enrichment of uranium that could be used for nuclear weapons won't be on the agenda.

Administration officials are skeptical that the talks will produce results. U.S. lawmakers, not to mention Israel, are wary of letting Iran string out the diplomacy while it continues to enrich uranium.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned again in a speech Friday of "more isolation and economic pressure" on Iran if it fails to address questions over its nuclear ambitions.

A few Iranian officials have hinted at flexibility on the nuclear issue. The senior European official predicted that it wouldn't take long to determine whether the negotiations are going anywhere. "You can get a pretty clear idea whether they're serious or not after one or two meetings," he said.

If diplomacy fails, the United States has pledged to seek tough new international sanctions on Iran, possibly including embargoes on its oil exports and refined petroleum imports. Obama, however, may find multilateral diplomacy as frustrating as his predecessor, George W. Bush, did: Russia remains opposed to new sanctions.

Grappling with Russia and Iran is just one of the headaches that Obama will confront in New York.

Along with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi will be in attendance. His government offended many Americans with its joyous reception for a Libyan agent who'd been convicted of the 1988 Lockerbie jet bombing and was released from jail recently on medical grounds.

Obama and Gadhafi could even share seats at the horseshoe-shaped table in the U.N. Security Council chambers. Obama, who gives his inaugural U.N. address Wednesday, will chair a special Security Council session Thursday on nuclear nonproliferation. Libya is a current council member.

Rather than positive images, the week is more likely to "show the disparity (between Obama's) aspirations for the U.N. and the difficult reality up there," said former U.S. Ambassador John Bolton, who personified the Bush administration's dim view of the world body.

Indeed, other Obama initiatives also appear to have stalled.

The revival of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which Obama had hoped to announce at the United Nations, appeared unlikely Friday after U.S. special envoy George Mitchell's Middle East shuttle failed to secure a breakthrough. Nevertheless, the White House Saturday announced that Obama will host a meeting Tuesday with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "It is another sign of the President's deep commitment to comprehensive peace that he wants to personally engage at this juncture, as we continue our efforts to encourage all sides to take responsibility for peace and to create a positive context for the resumption of negotiations," said George Mitchell, the U.S. special envoy for peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, in a White House statement.

Negotiations on climate change, which also will be prominent in Obama's U.N. visit, have been troubled, too.

U.N. officials warn that progress is too slow, tensions are high between the United States and Europe over how much to cut emissions and how to count those reductions and developing countries such as China have held to tough bargaining positions. They want developed nations to make deep cuts and provide generous financing to help poor nations reduce their emissions.

U.S. climate negotiator Todd Stern told a congressional panel Sept. 10 that "the tenor of negotiations . . . has been difficult," marked by the same divisive rhetoric from developed and developing countries that's been heard through 17 years of discussions.

(Renee Schoof contributed to this article.)


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