How does a president look strong when his traditional friends look weak?
That is just one of the more vexing challenges facing President Obama as he stages his first general assembly at the United Nations, before heading to a sitdown with the G20 world leaders in Pittsburgh this week.
Much of Obama’s sales job come down to a simple message: trust me.
There was a time, not so long ago, when even an American president with a weak argument (say, about invading Iraq) could count on a strong and convincing British prime minister to carry the day.
Now Obama has no Tony Blair; he has a Gordon Brown, who apparently pampered Muammar Gaddafi by releasing the man found guilty of the Lockerbie bombing, and whose countrymen have lost faith in the Afghan mission. Just last week Brown's climate change minister Ed Miliband suggested that the U.S. Senate could make progress on cutting carbon emissions by the Copenhagen summit in December. Wishful thinking is not the best basis for a meaningful alliance, never mind an axis of good.
That means Obama needs to prove his own credentials as he assembles new coalitions of the willing during an intensive week of high profile diplomacy. He needs to convince the UN that he is serious about real cuts in carbon output, and can bring the Congress along with him. He needs to convince the moderate Arab nations that he can bring the Israelis along with him on a new peace process. And he needs to convince the leaders in Pittsburgh-especially the Chinese-that he has a plan for not just sustaining the recovery but heading off inflation.
Much of those sales jobs come down to a simple message: trust me. It will be delivered in private meetings, not the speeches covered by the press. Given his international popularity, Obama's foreign policy aides know that it will buy him some more time.
But that may not be enough to divert the media's attention away from the theater of all the world leaders, especially the rogue players, in New York. The president starts his Monday in New York with a taping of the Late Show with David Letterman. Compared to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (staying at the InterContinental) and Muammar Gaddafi (refused a room at the Pierre), Letterman is clearly not the biggest joker in town.
Here’s what to look for on the two major issues Obama will deal with at the UN this week:
* Climate change: The focus of his first day at the U.N., which coincides with the Secretary General’s summit on the issue. If the United Nations was built for anything, it was to deal with global threats like this that no one country could handle on its own. President Obama wins huge credit with the world’s leaders merely for reversing the approach of his predecessor, and for his willingness to speak the language of climate change. Yet his first efforts to forge unity fell short of his goals, as China and India refused to sign up to sharp cuts in their carbon emissions, and the Chinese president Hu Jintao flew home to deal with ethnic riots.
Now foreign allies question whether Obama and the international community can deliver meaningful results in time for the Copenhagen summit in December. A failure to deliver a Senate vote on climate change would encourage other countries – especially India and China – to deflect any pressure later in the year. If you think it’s tough to get health care through the Senate, just wait until you watch the debate about cutting carbon emissions.
* The Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Administration officials had hoped for a breakthrough before this week to allow a new start to what used to be called the peace process. That breakthrough did not materialize, but Obama will still hold a three-way meeting with the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, on the sidelines of the UN’s general assembly.
Such early presidential engagement is encouraging for those in the region who watched President Clinton and President Bush immerse themselves late in peacemaking. And the White House is quick to point out that there has been extraordinary progress this year, given that Israel was shelling the Gaza Strip through Obama’s transition.
Still, the failure to freeze Israeli settlements in the West Bank is a big disappointment. The White House wanted to prove good faith to the Palestinians on settlements as they returned to talks and started to deliver meaningful steps on security.
These kinds of false starts are commonplace in intensive diplomacy, especially peace processes. But the fact that they are playing out on such a big stage, with such a new lead actor, only heightens the sense of drama this week. After all, the UN is where George W. Bush rallied the world after 9/11, then failed to convince the world about invading Iraq. It’s where Colin Powell waved a vial of fake anthrax, and where Hugo Chavez smelled sulfur. It's also the place Bush hated visiting: he often complained that the audience sat unmoved like waxworks, and he once wrote a note asking for a bathroom break during a Security Council meeting. Even some bladder control will allow Obama a better rapport with the UN.
Richard Wolffe is Daily Beast columnist and an award-winning journalist, and senior strategist at Public Strategies. He covered the entire length of Barack Obama's presidential campaign for Newsweek magazine. His book, Renegade: The Making of a President, was published by Crown in June.