09/28/2012 04:34 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Obama Passes Through the Minefield of UN Week (But Sets Up A Potential Explosion Next Year)

Like a ship navigating through a strait filled with mines, President Barack Obama succeeded in getting through this year's United Nations week gathering of heads of government in New York without damage to his re-election. But he also set up a potentially explosive confrontation during his second term over Iran's nuclear program.

It was a week of adjustments and avoidance for Obama.

And a week of notable speeches and moves by several figures, highly relevant to Obama's hopes, at one end of America's tricky geopolitical pivot from over-engagement with the Islamic world of the Middle East and Central Asia to enhanced engagement with the ascending nations of Asia and the Pacific. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and new Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, a USC alumnus, all made significant moves.

Addressing the United Nations General Assembly Tuesday morning in New York, President Barack Obama challenged the international community to confront the turmoil in the Middle East, saying the world faces "a choice between the forces that would drive us apart and the hopes we hold in common." He also said he would prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons.

Obama's address to the United Nations may not have been as important a speech as his Cairo address in 2009, when he laid out an expansive program of positively engaging the Islamic world, but it was at least a significant strategic adjustment. The Arab Awakening which Obama saw would come some day arrived, to the surprise of most, in January 2011, and has provided a roller coaster ride ever since.

Now the tangled US involvement in the Islamic world, especially the Middle East, of which the Arab Awakening is such a dramatic part, stands as a potential X factor in the presidential race, the sort of geopolitical upset I've long thought might be the only thing to deny Obama a second term.

Obama vowed that he would not allow Iran to have nuclear weapons, which is different from Netanyahu's insistence on denying it the capability to build a nuclear weapon. Obama refused to lay out the "red lines" of development of nuclear weapons potential repeatedly demanded by Netanyahu which would trigger military action. But he pledged that Iran would not be allowed to have nuclear weapons, which may set up a massive confrontation in his second term. Obama also denounced the anti-Islam video which prodded widespread anti-American demonstrations while at the same time upholding the American value of free speech.

And his administration this week acknowledged the obvious, that the murders of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, including Ambassador Chris Smith, on the anniversary of 9/11 were the result of a terrorist attack.

All this comes as new Gallup Poll surveys indicate that the the waves of anti-government rhetoric of recent years in the US may be receding.

One survey shows that trust in the ability of the federal government to handle problems at both the international level and the domestic level is up substantially, to the highest level since the invasion of Iraq. This is good news for Democrats, bad news for the anti-government lobby that has held such sway in Republican ranks in recent years.

There is one big caveat, however.

The polls were taken before the wave of violent unrest in the Islamic world following the hate-Islam video Innocence of Muslims, before the attacks on American missions, the burnings of American flags, the murders of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. The only good news is that the the protests weren't all that large and have not been sustained.

Following the old dictum that the best spin consists of telling the truth slowly, the administration this week finally acknowledged the obvious, that Stevens and the others were killed in a terrorist attack on the anniversary of 9/11. The early spin that the killings happened only when the protesters got out of hand and started firing their rocket launchers and machine guns is now out the window.

The jury is still not in on how all these things play out.

The greatest overt conflict was between Iran's Ahmadinejad and Israel's Netanyahu.

The bete noire of the blue-and-white, Ahmadinejad, delivered his last address to the UN General Assembly on Wednesday. The former mayor of Tehran, who has denied the Holocaust and postured as a 9/11 Truther, is term limited out of office next June. It will be interesting to see who replaces Ahmadinejad, who has been battling with more conservative fundamentalist forces -- who jailed some of his closest allies for, er, "sorcery" -- inside the regime for the past few years.

But that didn't stop him from delivering another of his trademark outrageous addresses, though this one was rather more restrained than in the past.

Speaking on Yom Kippur, Israel's Day of Atonement and the highest holy day in the Jewish faith, Ahmadinejad, who on Monday called Israel "a fake regime" with no history in the region, referred to Israel as a collection of "uncivilized Zionists."

Ahmadinejad also denounced the UN Security Council, which has repeatedly passed resolutions to rein in Iran's nuclear program, and called for "a new world order" free from "the hegemony of arrogance."

Not long after arriving Monday in New York, Ahmadinejad claimed that Israel, which he tellingly refuses to call by its name, referring only to "the Zionists," has no historic presence in the Middle East and declared that it is a problem that will be "eliminated."

Why would that upset anyone in Israel?

Flashing a diagram showing the progress Iran's nuclear program has made, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the United Nations General Assembly it is getting "late, very late" to stop Iran. He says that Iran can move on to "the final stage" of preparing a nuclear bomb by next summer at the latest.

Netanyahu, as expected, delineated what he thinks should be the "red lines" on Iran's nuclear program short of actual production of a bomb, something which Obama has refused to do despite heavy pressure from the Israeli leader and his allies inside this country.

But just hours before he did so, his own foreign ministry released a report saying that international sanctions have had massive impacts on Iran, calling for another round of sanctions.

Netanyahu, whose talk of military strikes against Iran had already been publicly opposed by various notable figures from the Israeli military, intelligence, and security establishments, seems to be at the head of a divided government.

"I very much appreciate the president's position," said Netanyahu, despite the lack of the "red lines" short of the production of an actual nuclear bomb that Netanyahu had urged.

Yet he likened a nuclear-armed Iran to a nuclear-armed Al Qaeda, casting Iran as an irrational actor unlike the late Soviet Union as he claimed repeatedly that there was no possibility of containing Iran because it cannot be deterred as the Soviets were. He pointedly noted that there were no Soviet suicide bombers. But the Soviet Union was, of course, vastly more powerful than Iran could ever hope to be.

And yet, Netanyahu's hard and fast "red line" beyond which Iran should not be allowed to proceed, a level of nuclear enrichment he discusses in the video, will not be reached until next spring at the earliest or even the summer, according to the former Sayeret Matkal commando, whose brother Yonatan was the only Israeli killed during the legendary raid on Entebbe, which the elder Netanyahu commanded.

Which would appear to rule out Israeli military strikes against Iran before the US election. Unless, of course, Netanyahu is trying to regain the element of surprise which has been shredded by his incessant saber rattling.

Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addressed the UN Thursday morning and announced that he will push for formal observer state status in the UN after the November election in the US.

He pushed for full member nation status last year only to find it blocked by the US. But unlike full member status, observer state status does not require approval of the UN Security Council, only the support of the UN General Assembly. And bringing it up after the US elections will avoid making it a lightning rod for the right and Romney.

Obama, who clearly dodged Netanyahu (who is clearly for Romney, his old friend from Boston Consulting Group) and his insistence on a "red line" for military action against Iran's nuclear program, eschewed all private meetings with heads of government this year at the UN.

That's quite unusual. It's also unfortunate, especially with respect to the new leaders of Egypt and Libya.

But he obviously didn't want to lend any more oxygen to Netanyahu, who is himself sharply opposed by much if not most of the Israeli military, intelligence, and security establishment in his Iran threats.

For his part, Obama declared on Tuesday that the US will not allow Iran to have nuclear weapons. The big difference between Obama on the one hand and Netanyahu and Romney on the other is that the latter want to eliminate a nuclear weapons capability, something which is several steps removed from having an actual deliverable weapon.

Obama, repeatedly invoking the memory of slain Ambassador Chris Stevens, challenged the UN to get at the roots of irrational rage in the Islamic world. He denounced the hate-Islam video which prompted widespread, though not all that large protests, but made it clear that free speech is a key American value.

That's already proving to be a problem with a number of Islamic leaders such as new Egyptian President Morsi, who want to criminalize blasphemy. Or outlaw hate speech, as it would be put in this country.

Morsi, Egypt's only democratically elected president, heads the largest Arab country by population. He intrigued, calling for an end to the Assad regime in Syria but opposing Western military intervention, denouncing anti-US violence but calling for a crackdown on anti-Islamic attacks, affirming his country's treaties with Israel but denouncing Israel's Palestinian policies.

This is someone Obama needs to get know much better, and did not this week due to the dodging of Netanyahu. But the good news is that Morsi, who earned his doctorate in materials science at USC and worked as an engineering professor in California before returning to Egypt and his future in the Muslim Brotherhood, moved decisively to address his citizens and stop the attacks on the US embassy in Cairo after Obama urged him not to dawdle.

And what of Mitt Romney? Well, having having misfired badly with his snap attack on Obama earlier this month, as I discussed here, he didn't have a lot to say about this stuff this week. He had his obvious chance to criticize the lack of security around the 9/11 anniversary which led to the Stevens assassination and he blew it with a mindless attack. So when he spoke Tuesday at former President Bill Clinton's annual Clinton Global Initiative meeting, his only major geopolitical address of the week, he advocated that foreign aid be made contingent on what he calls "prosperity pacts."

I'm not sure how those would work. He makes it sound like workfare vs. welfare. But foreign aid isn't welfare. Still, it's something that Republican base voters, who hate foreign aid and imagine it to be a far bigger portion of the federal budget than it is, will like.

So it's been a good week for Obama.

But he only got through the minefield. And on a short-term, pre-Election Day basis, at that. He hasn't cleared the minefield.

Not that this is a minefield that can ever be truly cleared. That's likely a political fantasy, or at best an exercise like the US Navy has just carried out in the Persian Gulf with 24 other nations, practicing to keep the Strait of Hormuz, the world's most important choke point for oil shipments, free of Iran's oft threatened closure.

If only that was the extent of Obama's challenges.

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