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Obama star power faces new test at UN meeting

Obama star power faces new test at UN meeting
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First Published: Wed, Sep 23 2009. 03 20 PM IST
Updated: Wed, Sep 23 2009. 03 20 PM IST
United Nations: US president Barack Obama makes his United Nations debut on Wednesday calling on world leaders to shoulder more responsibility in confronting global challenges.
Obama will use his maiden speech to the UN general assembly to highlight the new tone he has brought to U.S. foreign policy, stressing cooperation and consultation over the unilateralism of his predecessor, George W. Bush. Despite the change in tone, Obama has few tangible foreign policy achievements to show for his first eight months in office.
As he wrestles with a number of thorny diplomatic issues, Obama will insist that other countries live up to their obligations.
“This cannot be solely America’s endeavor,” Obama will say, according to advance excerpts of his address.
While his global popularity all but assures Obama a warm UN welcome, the audience will be studded with reminders of past problems and future perils.
Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe are among the leaders due to address the gathering — a chorus of skeptics who will likely seek to undercut Obama’s star turn.
Also scheduled to make speeches this week are Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who have both rebuffed Obama’s efforts to reinvigorate stalled Middle East peace talks.
Obama’s moment in the UN spotlight will at least afford him relief from troubles at home, where his approval ratings have slipped amid bitter debate over his chief domestic policy priority — reforming US healthcare.
Obama, who later this week hosts a Group of 20 summit in Pittsburgh, will likely call for further cooperation to buttress the weak global economy and fight climate change.
He can be expected to lay out his foreign policy priorities, ranging from the war in Afghanistan to Middle East peacemaking to nuclear standoffs with Iran and North Korea, issues on which he has made little headway so far. But he will insist the United States cannot do it all on its own.
“Those who used to chastise America for acting alone in the world cannot now stand by and wait for America to solve the world’s problems alone,” Obama will say.
“We have sought — in word and deed — a new era of engagement with the world. Now is the time for all of us to take our share of responsibility for a global response to global challenges,” he will say. “If we are honest with ourselves, we need to admit that we are not living up to that responsibility.”
Iran’s Ahmadinejad has rocked the boat before at the General Assembly, and his speech later on Wednesday will likely be the sharpest counterpoint to Obama’s address.
Iran is due to hold direct talks next month with the United States and other international powers concerned about its nuclear ambitions.
But Ahmadinejad recently repeated that Tehran will never drop its nuclear program and said again that the Holocaust was a lie, raising the stakes before next month’s talks and spurring Germany to threaten a walkout if he repeats it again in his UN speech this week.
The United States and other members of the negotiating group — the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany — are slated to meet on the sidelines of the General Assembly on Wednesday.
Seeking Support for Afghan War
The US leader is expected to seek to shore up support for the war in Afghanistan, where US combat deaths have risen as a resurgent Taliban has confounded efforts to stabilize the country.
Obama can be expected to reassert the US commitment to Afghanistan and to aiding neighboring Pakistan in its fight against Islamic militancy. But whether that will be enough to win deeper international backing remains to be seen.
Obama’s global entreaties have already come up short on at least one count.
Despite hard lobbying before this week’s UN meeting, US diplomats were unable to broker a breakthrough between Israel and the Palestinians, prolonging a standoff that has bedeviled generations of US leaders.
Obama held talks and a photo opportunity with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday, but anyone hoping for concrete signs of progress was disappointed.
Libya’s Gaddafi follows Obama to the podium on Wednesday for his first UN speech, one that could inflame US emotions over the Lockerbie bombing following Scotland’s release of a Libyan official accused in the 1988 attack.
Not in the New York audience will be North Korea’s reclusive president, Kim Jong-il — another fixture in former President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil,” who still confounds policymakers in the Obama administration.
North Korea could figure in Obama’s push for tougher global safeguards against nuclear proliferation. Obama will likely press Pyongyang to return to suspended six-party talks on its own nuclear program.
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First Published: Wed, Sep 23 2009. 03 20 PM IST