President Obama addressed the U.N. General Assembly in New York today at a pivotal moment, as uprisings transform the Middle East and the Palestinians unilaterally pursue statehood. In the wake of the speech (full text here), three broad currents of commentary are emerging. Let's take a look at each one.
Obama had trouble explaining America's inconsistent foreign policy
"The President's toughest moment came in explaining the U.S. stance on Palestinian statehood," The Council on Foreign Relations' Stewart Patrick explains. The message that Israeli-Palestinian peace can only be achieved through bilateral talks was "incongruous, after his previous paeans to democratic self-determination in the Arab world. And it surely fell on deaf ears, given Palestinian impatience with Israeli obstruction, notably on settlement issues." Patrick adds that in regards to Syria, "where the regime's atrocities have exceeded those committed by Qaddafi," Obama managed only to call on the U.N. Security Council to sanction the Syrian regime, which is unlikely to happen.
The Atlantic's Max Fisher claims that Obama was also hypocritical when it came to Bahrain, the oil-rich, U.S.-allied Persian Gulf island that violently suppressed peaceful demonstrations this year. "Obama's U.N. address made clear that, for all his soaring rhetoric on democracy in the Middle East and North Africa, and for all the very real U.S. action that has backed that rhetoric, the U.S. will not be bringing much in the way of either democracy or talk of it to Bahrain anytime soon," he writes.
Obama was speaking more to American voters than U.N. delegates
By emphasizing that America's commitment to Israel's security is "unshakable" and stressing that Israeli-Palestinian peace can only be achieved through bilateral talks, Time's Tony Karon explains, Obama reassured pro-Israel voters and donors and delivered a "pretty good domestic reelection campaign speech" (indeed, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the speech). But the speech may backfire outside the U.S., Karon adds, since it reinforces a "growing sense that U.S. domestic politics restrains Washington from playing the honest broker role it has claimed as its exclusive preserve since the Oslo agreements 18 years ago."
The Guardian's Julian Borger adds that with the 2012 presidential elections looming, Obama feels he cannot afford to "be outflanked by his future Republican opponent" in defending Israel. "A good measure of the emotional slant of any speech on the Israel-Palestine question is the relative weight given to Jewish and Arab suffering. By that measure, the needle on Obama's speech was far over to one side." The Weekly Standard's Jonathan V. Last argues that Obama was playing to his electoral base by boasting about ending President Bush's wars and killing Osama bin Laden.
Still, not everyone's convinced by these arguments. The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg suggests that, at least in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian piece of the speech, Obama may have been settling diplomatic scores rather than seeking to score political points. His sources tell him that Obama and his administration are "particularly pissed-off about UN hypocrisy on Israel, and are also angry at the disrespect shown them by Mahmoud Abbas. In other words, it's Abbas's turn to feel Obama's wrath today."
Obama's no longer the international community's darling
The AP argues that Obama's "star power" has "faded slightly over time" at the U.N., noting that the President wasn't interrupted by applause once during his address today (Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, by contrast, was interrupted by applause twice). "His comments on the Palestinian-Israel conflict dampened the mood," the AP writes. That sentiment was apparent on Twitter as well. "I remember watching Obama's Cairo speech from [the West Bank city of] Ramallah and people there had such high hopes," Al Jazeera's Sherine Tadros wrote in reference to Obama's June 2009 Cairo address to the Arab world. "Seems v[ery] naïve now."
Here's the picture getting passed around about how Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reacted during the speech: