UNITED NATIONS – President Barack Obama bluntly prodded world leaders Wednesday to join the U.S. in solving pressing global problems, challenging them to move beyond “an almost reflexive anti-Americanism which, too often, has served as an excuse for collective inaction.”
Obama, making his inaugural address to the U.N. General Assembly, told fellow leaders in so many words that he has changed the tone and substance of U.S. security policies he inherited from President George W. Bush, and it is time for them to reciprocate.
“Make no mistake: This cannot be solely America’s endeavor. 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 said.
Iran and North Korea, he said, “must be held accountable” if they continue nuclear programs outside international inspection. Israel, Palestinians and Arab states “must decide whether we are serious about peace or whether we will only lend it lip service.” And developed and developing nations together bear responsibility for stopping global climate change, he said.
Obama’s remarks seemed to betray frustration, and perhaps some surprise, that after eight months in office in which he’s overturned much of the Bush legacy and offered engagement to friends and enemies alike, he’s won few concrete benefits in return.
His Middle East peace initiative is stuck in low gear, Europeans and others are declining to offer more troops for the war in Afghanistan, and it remains unclear at best whether powers such as China and Russia will join in imposing harsher sanctions on Iran if negotiations that begin Oct. 1 fail.
Obama met later Wednesday with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, in a session that senior U.S. officials said focused almost entirely on strategy toward Iran.
Afterward, Medvedev appeared to soften Russia’s long-standing opposition to new sanctions on Iran if it fails to halt enrichment of uranium that could be used for nuclear weapons. “Sanctions rarely lead to productive results but in some cases are inevitable,” the Russian leader said.
Obama’s top aide on Russia, Michael McFaul, said that Washington and Moscow now agree on a joint strategy toward Iran. But it remains to be seen whether Russia will actually endorse tougher measures if the time comes.
In his U.N. speech, Obama repeated a familiar refrain for U.S. presidents who make the annual pilgrimage to its Turtle Bay headquarters. The world body should live up to its promise, he said.
“The United Nations can either be a place where we bicker about outdated grievances or forge common ground, a place where we focus on what drives us apart or what brings us together, a place where we indulge tyranny or a source of moral authority,” he said.
It took only minutes for Obama’s hopes to be dashed.
Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, in the audience for Obama’s speech, along with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, took the podium next and delivered a rambling, 96-minute tirade. In a speech harkening back to the ideological battles of the 1960s and 1970s, he denounced the U.N. Security Council, which holds most of the world body’s real power, and trashed U.S. policies from the 1983 Grenada invasion to the current war in Afghanistan.
He praised Obama, however, calling him “our son” because of his African roots, and suggesting he should be permanent president of the U.S. Obama and the senior members of his delegation had left the General Assembly hall before Gadhafi began speaking.
Obama himself was greeted politely by fellow leaders, who seemed well aware of the U.S. president’s international star power and were eager to hear him out.
He received his loudest applause when he criticized Israel’s settlements in the West Bank. While the U.S. stands by Israel, “America does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements,” Obama said.
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