President Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Wednesday morning, laying out America’s position on a multitude of international issues. He applauded the success of the Arab Spring, warned of turmoil to come in other Arab uprisings, and even made a quick plug for his American Jobs Act. On the question of Palestinian statehood -- the controversy hanging over the week’s meetings -- the president drew a hard line.
TO PALESTINIANS: 'THERE IS NO SHORTCUT TO PEACE.' Obama reiterated the administration’s position that only direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians can lead to a lasting peace. The Palestinians plan to ask the United Nations Security Council for recognition as an independent state on Friday, a move the United States has promised to veto and Israel strongly opposes. But the U.S. cannot veto a potential second vote in the 193-member General Assembly that would make Palestine a nonvoting observer state at the world body. “Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the U.N. If it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now,” Obama said. Peace will only be achieved “if we can encourage the parties to sit down together, to listen to each other, and to understand each other's hopes and fears.” Obama stressed that the United States supports the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state. But, facing pressure from domestic political rivals over what they claim is wavering support for Israel, he also reaffirmed that the American “friendship with Israel is deep and enduring.” He highlighted the security challenges Israel faces in its neighborhood and emphasized that “America’s commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable.”
'THE TIDE OF WAR IS RECEDING.' Obama addressed the increasingly unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, citing progress made since he took office when “the violent extremists who drew us into war in the first place -- Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida organization -- remained at large.” With U.S. troops slated to leave Iraq by the end of the year, Obama pledged to have a “normal relationship” with the country, and promised continued U.S. support for its government, security forces, people, and aspirations. Obama also talked up the drawdown in Afghanistan, where the U.S. has laid out a plan to withdraw troops in time for a complete transition to Afghan security control by 2014. “So let there be no doubt: the tide of war is receding,” Obama said. “When I took office, roughly 180,000 Americans were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. By the end of this year, that number will be cut in half, and it will continue to decline. This is critical for the sovereignty of Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s also critical to the strength of the United States as we build our nation at home.”
CELEBRATING THE ARAB SPRING AND OTHER POLITICAL CHANGE. The president pointed to the outcomes of protests in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya as examples of the success that can come by empowering civilians with support from the international community. “So this has been a remarkable year," he said. Though the future of the three countries remains uncertain, Obama lauded their progress, giving himself a small pat on the back for helping resolve the crises.
THE DIFFICULT ARAB SUMMER. Obama also reviewed other uprisings in the region, where protesters are still demanding political change or the ouster of their longtime leaders:
SYRIA. Even as Syrian protesters demand that President Bashar al-Assad step down, he continues to hold on to power amid increasing diplomatic and financial isolation. Obama, who has already called on Assad to step down, imposed a raft of economic sanctions targeting Syria’s oil and gas sector, which were followed up by similar European Union sanctions. Obama called on the United Nations Security Council to sanction the Syrian regime as well. “There is no excuse for inaction,” he said.
YEMEN. As Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh remains in Saudi Arabia recovering from wounds he sustained during an attack on his presidential compound, he has so far refused to step down. Despite recently announcing that he authorized his deputy to sign an agreement that would lead to his resignation, Saleh retains control as his people continue to revolt. “We must work with Yemen’s neighbors and our partners around the world to seek a path that allows for a peaceful transition of power,” Obama said.
BAHRAIN. In Bahrain, where the largely Shi’ite opposition is calling for political and social reform from its Sunni rulers, Obama was more optimistic for compromise. “Steps have been taken toward reform and accountability,” he said, referring to the commission tasked with investigating potential human rights violations during the uprising, and the government’s "national dialogue" with the opposition. “But more are required,” he continued. “America is a close friend of Bahrain, and we will continue to call on the government and the main opposition bloc, the Wifaq, to pursue a meaningful dialogue that brings peaceful change that is responsive to the people.” The tiny island nation is home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet.
Andrew Joseph and Sophie Quinton contributed contributed to this article.