Constructive engagement brings rewards at the UN

If there is progress on Syrian disarmament and if the slight thaw with Iran promotes serious progress, this will have been a very good week.

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By any measure, this was a big week for diplomacy at the United Nations. On Tuesday, President Obama set the tone for the week delivering an important and potentially far-reaching speech before the General Assembly. In his remarks, he reflected on the challenges America faces in attempting to protect its core interests and project its values in a rapidly changing and dangerous world.

The speech deserves to be read in its entirety since it represents the most thoughtful statement to date of the president’s reflections on how protecting America’s interests and realising American aspirations must be tempered by a recognition of the limits of its power.

A few writers saw the speech as an effort to craft an “Obama Doctrine”. In fact, it was anything but a new doctrine.

Instead of framing hard and fast answers, the president asked tough questions. It was an humble speech. One that recognised that force cannot always advance progress in democratisation, that we live in a world of “imperfect choices” and “unintended consequences” that must always be factored into any discussion of the use of force and, that after more than a decade or war, Americans have developed a “hard earned humility” regarding foreign interventions.

Mr. Obama acknowledges all this, noting that although “we’ve worked to end a decade of war”, his administration must still contend with the mess left behind by the mindset of “perpetual war” – specifically citing the lingering controversies emanating from the failure to close Guantanamo, the continuing use of drones, and the NSA’s intrusive electronic spying programme.

The speech, however, was not a pacifist manifesto since Mr Obama acknowledged that even with these complicating considerations, there were still times when America would need to act in defence of its core interests, or to stop a humanitarian catastrophe. And there would be times when the “credible threat of force” might be required to transform a situation or avert a crisis.

There was no suggestion that America was withdrawing from the world, or, more specifically, the Middle East.

More than a half of the speech was focused on his continuing commitment to the region, focusing on the need to end the slaughter in Syria, a way to engage Iran, resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and continuing US support for Egypt.

But there was more to the week than a speech, no matter how instructive it may have been. Throughout the past several days the US and Iran flirted with each other, sending repeated positive signals about their commitment to turn a page to work to address concerns relating to Iran’s nuclear programme.

The P5+1 meeting ended on a positive note, with all sides acknowledging a change in tone and the promise of more constructive talks in the future.

Analysts and commentators, however, looking for a quick hit story were initially disappointed with the failure of Mr Obama and Mr Rouhani to meet or to provide the media with a photo of a handshake.

But that disappointment was cast aside on the news of a late-Friday surprise phone call between presidents Obama and Rouhani in which it was reported that the two leaders agreed to focus their efforts on not only the nuclear issue, but on other regional matters – most notably achieving a negotiated settlement to the conflict in Syria.

There was also news about progress on a Security Council resolution on Syria that would press the Syrian government to comply with the agreement to surrender their chemical weapons stockpile.

The US and its allies may have wanted the resolution to be tougher and to say and do more to punish the Assad regime.

But given the realities of the Council, the fact that a consensus was reached that may hasten the removal of chemical weapons is itself important.

To have moved in just a few weeks’ time from a war footing to constructive engagement on two explosive issues has to be seen as a “good week”.

There were, to be sure, critics who responded in full force. The president’s speech was denounced as a muddled celebration of weakness, and a surrender of leadership. The Security Council resolution on Syria was dismissed as toothless, since it did not include an enforcement mechanism. The outreach to Iran was derided as naïve and dangerous. And there were those who suggested that credit for the week should not go to Obama, but to prime minister Putin and president Rouhani.

But the critics were wrong. It was smart for Mr Obama to recognise and seize on openings when they occur. Credit, of course, must be given to the Iranian and Russian leaders. But there can be no denying that Mr Obama – by not behaving as George Bush might have – was able to wring the best out of what was a bad situation. He was also able to replace hollow boasting and absolutist proclamations with a commitment to dialogue based on mutual respect and put us on the path to the resolution of some (not all) problems, without risking involvement in a destabilising new war.

The test of how successful this week has been will come as we move forward.

If Syrian disarmament proceeds apace, if the resolution of the chemical weapons issue moves us closer to a Geneva Summit and if the slight thaw with Iran promotes serious progress on addressing their nuclear programme – then this will be remembered as a very good week, indeed.

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa