If the second term of the Obama administration is poised to re-focus on Asia, there was no evidence of that in Barack Obama's speech at the United Nations General Assembly Tuesday morning. The president mentioned China exactly one time, and that was in the context of exploring a possible diplomatic breakthrough with Iran.
Obama devoted a speech that lasted almost 45-minutes almost entirely to the crises playing out in the Middle East and North Africa. And he challenged the international community to live up its historic mandate by confronting the threats of sectarian conflict, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.
Obama said pursuing a nuclear deal with Iran is a top priority for the US, and he hinted that all options remain on the table for his administration.
"America prefers to resolve our concerns over Iran’s nuclear program peacefully, but that we are determined to prevent them from developing a nuclear weapon," he said.
But Obama highlighted recent signs of mutual interests between the US and Iran, even pointing out that, "[Iran's] Supreme Leader has issued a fatwa against the development of nuclear weapons."
Obama said Iran's newly elected president, Hassan Rouhani, has "received from the Iranian people a mandate to pursue a more moderate course." And with that door now cracked open ever so slightly, President Obama has asked Secretary of State John Kerry to explore a diplomatic way forward in coordination with the European Union, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China.
Another problem Obama spent considerable time addressing was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It might not be the root cause of many of the region's troubles, he said, however "[r]eal breakthroughs on these two issues – Iran’s nuclear program, and Israeli-Palestinian peace – would have a profound and positive impact on the entire Middle East and North Africa."
The president also spent considerable time discussing the effort to rid Syria of its chemical weapons stockpile, and the ongoing political unrest in Egypt. He mentioned Libya and the recent terrorist attacks in Kenya, Pakistan and Iraq. But rhetorically at least, Obama showed no sign of making that widely reported pivot to the East. Though he did make this one other allusion to Asia as a positive example for more economically troubled parts of the globe.
"I see it across the Pacific, where hundreds of millions have been lifted out of poverty in a single generation."