A cheat sheet to Obama's speech at the UN

U.S. President Barack Obama delivered a lengthy speech at the United Nations today that covered a range of foreign policy issues including Syria and Iran. In case you missed it, here's what you need to know about what Obama said.
U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday. (Richard Drew/Associated Press)

U.S. President Barack Obama delivered a speech lasting more than 40 minutes at the United Nations General Assembly this morning that covered a range of foreign policy issues. In case you missed it, we boil it down into five concise topics.

Q: What did Obama say about Iran?

A: The U.S. president said Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon (something Iran denies) has been a major source of instability in the Middle East and that the U.S. is “determined” to prevent Iran from developing one. The U.S. and Iran have been on the outs since 1979, and Obama said mistrust between the two nations has “deep roots” and that their difficult history can’t be overcome overnight.

But, he cautiously left the diplomatic door open: “We are encouraged that President [Hassan] Rouhani received from the Iranian people a mandate to pursue a more moderate course,” he said, adding that Secretary of State John Kerry has been tasked with talking to Iran about its recent willingness to reach an agreement on its nuclear program. “The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested.”

He said the U.S. isn't seeking regime change in Iran and that he respects the right for Iranians to access nuclear energy.Commitments from Rouhani that Iran won't develop a nuclear weapon "have to be matched by actions that are transparent and verifiable."

Q: What did Obama say about Syria?

A: Obama said there is overwhelming evidence that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons on Aug. 21 in the Damascus area, and to suggest otherwise is “an insult to human reason and to the legitimacy of this institution.” Obama said if the Security Council can’t agree on a resolution that would include consequences for Syria if it doesn’t comply with its commitment to destroy its chemical weapons, then it would show the United Nations can’t enforce the most basic international law.

A military action won’t achieve lasting peace, said Obama, and it's up to the Syrian people to decide who leads them.That being said: "A leader who slaughtered his citizens and gassed children to death cannot regain the legitimacy to lead a badly fractured country. The notion that Syria can somehow return to a pre-war status quo is a fantasy." Russia and Iran need to realize that supporting Bashar al-Assad's leadership means allowing for a violent space for extremists to operate, he added.

The U.S. will support the "moderate opposition" and urge them to reach a political settlement. "We are committed to working this political trek.” His country has already given about $1 billion for humanitarian support and Obama announced another $340 million in funding.

U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, left, Secretary of State John Kerry, second from right, and national security adviser Susan Rice, right, listen while Obama speaks. (Seth Wenig/Associated Press)

Q: What did Obama say about peace in the Middle East?

A: He said the U.S. is “determined” to resolve the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. The U.S. will never compromise its commitment to Israel’s security or existence as a Jewish state. The U.S. is also committed to the belief that Palestinians have a right to their own sovereign state. The time is ripe to pursue peace, Obama said, and Israeli and Palestinian leaders have shown a willingness to talk. Now it’s time for everyone else to take some risks too, he said.  

"Friends of Israel, including the United States, must recognize that Israel’s security as a Jewish and democratic state depend on the realization of a Palestinian state. And we should say so clearly ... Let’s emerge from the familiar corners of blame and prejudice; let’s support Israeli and Palestinian leaders who are prepared to walk the difficult road to peace.”

Q: What did Obama say about Egypt?

A: He said Mohammed Morsi was “unwilling or unable” to govern in an inclusive way and that the interim government isn’t doing much better. The U.S. has been accused of both supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and trying to get rid of it, and Obama said his country is guilty of neither: "The United States has purposely avoided choosing sides.” The U.S. wants a government in Egypt that reflects the will of the people. It will maintain a “constructive” relationship with the interim government and future support, military or otherwise, will depend on Egypt’s progress in pursuing a more democratic path.

Q: What did Obama say about America being exceptional?

A: Obama mentioned American exceptionalism during his recent televised address to the nation when he laid out the case for a military strike against Syria, and Russian President Vladimir Putin took him to task for it, saying Americans shouldn’t be encouraged to think of themselves that way. On Tuesday, Obama again called his country exceptional.

He was saying that it would be a danger for the world if the U.S. disengaged from the affairs of other countries because it could create “a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill.” Disengagement would be “a mistake.”

“Some may disagree. But I believe America is exceptional, in part because we have shown a willingness through the sacrifice of blood and treasure to stand up not only for our own narrow self interest, but for the interest of all.”


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