Obama embraces the U.N.

The President pledges to increase international cooperation, while another leader steals the spotlight

Published September 23, 2009 6:45PM (EDT)

President Obama is not his predecessor -- any remaining illusions to the contrary were pretty convincingly dispelled when he addressed the United Nations General Assembly Wednesday.

Many of those in the Bush administration, including former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, did little to hide their contempt for the international body and tried to minimize its influence in world politics. But throughout his speech today, Obama reached out to the U.N., encouraging the organization to work proactively to make more of an impact.

"The United States stands ready to begin a new chapter of international cooperation -- one that recognizes the rights and responsibilities of all nations," Obama said to applause at the conclusion of his speech.

Obama sought to differentiate himself from Bush in a number of areas, highlighting policy changes he's made since assuming control of the Oval Office: Obama mentioned his plans to close Guantanamo Bay, as well as his commitment to ending torture and fighting terrorism within the "rule of law" as examples of how "America will live its values, and we will lead by example."

The President also directly addressed the perception of American arrogance around the world, saying, "I took office at a time when many around the world had come to view America with skepticism and distrust. Part of this was due to misperceptions and misinformation about my country. Part of this was due to opposition to specific policies, and a belief that on certain critical issues, America has acted unilaterally, without regard for the interests of others. And this has fed an almost reflexive anti-Americanism, which too often has served as an excuse for collective inaction."

But he added that the U.S. can not solve the world's many current crises on its own. "But make no mistake: This cannot solely be America's endeavor," Obama said. "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."

While much of the speech focused on cooperation within the international community, Obama did take the time to condemn two countries that have remained trouble spots during his presidency.

"If the governments of Iran and North Korea choose to ignore international standards; if they put the pursuit of nuclear weapons ahead of regional stability and the security and opportunity of their own people; if they are oblivious to the dangers of escalating nuclear arms races in both East Asia and the Middle East -- then they must be held accountable," the president said.

According to the New York Times, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is set to address the body this afternoon, remained impassive during this part of Obama's speech. Much of the assembly burst into applause when Obama finished his remarks, but the Iranian delegation did not.

A day after meeting with leaders from both Palestine and Israel and encouraging the two sides to reengage in negotiations to end their decades-long conflict, Obama weighed in on the issue at the U.N. as well. He reiterated his position that Israel must put a stop to new settlements before any progress towards peace can be made.

"The time has come to relaunch negotiations -- without preconditions -- that address the permanent-status issues: security for Israelis and Palestinians; borders, refugees and Jerusalem," he said. "The goal is clear: two states living side by side in peace and security -- a Jewish state of Israel, with true security for all Israelis; and a viable, independent Palestinian state with contiguous territory that ends the occupation that began in 1967, and realizes the potential of the Palestinian people."

However, Obama may have been upstaged by another leader who took to the microphone at the U.N. Libya's Moammar Gadhafi went off on a rambling, lengthy rant in which he called the Iraq War "the mother of all evils," condemned U.S. military action in Vietnam and Korea and called for investigations into the assassinations of former President John F. Kennedy and civil rights leader Martin Luther King.

"Why did this Israeli kill the killer of John F. Kennedy? ... We have to open the files!" he said.

Throughout his speech, Gadhafi referred to Obama as "our son," an apparent reference to Obama's Kenyan heritage. In an interesting side note, Fox News ran with this as its top story from Gadhafi's speech. However, Gadhafi had a much closer relationship with Bush than he has so far established with Obama.

By Vincent Rossmeier

Vincent Rossmeier is an editorial assistant at Salon.

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Barack Obama Middle East United Nations War Room