President Obama's speech before the United Nations was in many ways unremarkable. In others, it was quite remarkable, especially when he announced that he had directed Secretary of State John Kerry to begin paving the way for talks with Iran on their nuclear program with the hope of larger talks aimed at bringing peace to the region and an end to the crippling sanctions on that country.
Speaking to the United Nations General Assembly, Mr. Obama sounded a cautiously optimistic tone about the prospects for diplomacy, saying he had instructed Secretary of State John Kerry to pursue face-to-face negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program.
“The roadblocks may prove to be too great,” he said, “but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested.”
Mr. Obama also called on the Security Council to pass a “strong” resolution that would impose consequences on Syria if it failed to turn over its chemical weapons. The American threat of military action against Syria, Mr. Obama said, set in motion diplomatic efforts with Russia to take over and eventually destroy Mr. Assad’s weapons.
“Without a credible military threat, the Security Council had demonstrated no inclination to act at all,” the president said. “If we cannot agree even on this, then it will show that the U.N. is incapable of enforcing the most basic of international laws. On the other hand, if we succeed, it will send a powerful message that the use of chemical weapons has no place in the 21st century, and that this body means what it says.”
Mr. Obama also announced that the United States would pledge an additional $340 million in humanitarian aid to help refugees from the civil war in Syria. And while he praised the diplomatic initiative by Russia on chemical weapons, he also said that the continuing support of Russia and Iran for the government of President Bashar al-Assad risked leading to further extremism in Syria.
Mr. Obama’s speech came at a time of swift, almost disorienting diplomatic developments, with the White House first threatening a military strike against Syria, then backing off, and then suddenly encountering a diplomatic opening with Iran on its nuclear program. Mr. Obama tried to take account of all of it, in a wide-ranging speech that echoed some of the themes of his address last spring on the changing American role in the world.
“For the United States,” he said, "these new circumstances have also meant shifting away from a perpetual war-footing.”
That last remark could be the most significant one of all, at least for Americans.