WASHINGTON — President Obama laid out America's four "core interests" in the Middle East at a speech before the U.N. General Assembly Tuesday, outlining a vision for American foreign policy that he said keeps the U.S. closely involved in the region while avoiding the mistakes of Iraq.
The United States will engage Iran in direct negotiations over nuclear weapons, a move long promised by Obama but one that has only come with a change in the leadership of that country.
"We are encouraged that President Rouhani received from the Iranian people a mandate to pursue a more moderate course," Obama said. "Given President Rouhani's stated commitment to reach an agreement, I am directing John Kerry to pursue this effort with the Iranian government, in close coordination with the European Union, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China."
Obama was cautiously optimistic about a thaw with Iran, noting that he did not believe the deep divides between the two nations "can be overcome overnight" because "the suspicion runs too deep."
On Syria, Obama called on the U.N. Security council with "consequences" for the regime there if it fails to keep its promise to turn over chemical weapons to the international community. Addressing the larger Syrian situation, Obama said it was important for the international community to work together moving ahead.
"As we pursue a settlement, let us remember that this is not a zero-sum endeavor. We are no longer in a Cold War. There's no Great Game to be won, nor does America have any interest in Syria beyond the well-being of its people, the stability of its neighbors, the elimination of chemical weapons, and ensuring it does not become a safe haven for terrorists," Obama said. "I welcome the influence of all nations that can help bring about a peaceful resolution of Syria's civil war."
The speech set out a path for America's involvement in the world's most volatile region that kept open the use of military force but backed away from the notion of regime change or spreading democracy through force.
"The United States of America is prepared to use all elements of our power, including military force, to secure these core interests in the region," Obama said, before laying out four tenets:
We will confront external aggression against our allies and partners, as we did in the Gulf War.
We will ensure the free flow of energy from the region to the world. Although America is steadily reducing our own dependence on imported oil, the world still depends upon the region's energy supply, and a severe disruption could destabilize the entire global economy.
We will dismantle terrorist networks that threaten our people. Wherever possible, we will build the capacity of our partners, respect the sovereignty of nations, and work to address the root causes of terror. But when its necessary to defend the United States against terrorist attacks, we will take direct action.
And finally, we will not tolerate the development or use of weapons of mass destruction. Just as we consider the use of chemical weapons in Syria to be a threat to our own national security, we reject the development of nuclear weapons that could trigger a nuclear arms race in the region, and undermine the global non-proliferation regime.
Even as he reserved the right to act unilaterally to protect U.S. interests in the Middle East, Obama sought to reassure the world leaders gathered at the U.N. that his Middle East policy will not look like his predecessor's, and that America has learned the lessons of regime change.
"I also believe that we can rarely achieve these objectives through unilateral American action — particularly with military action," he said. "Iraq shows us that democracy cannot be imposed by force. Rather, these objectives are best achieved when we partner with the international community, and with the countries and people of the region."
But that doesn't mean Obama is backing away from the idea of American exceptionalism that has guided the nation's foreign involvements for decades. In a not-so-thinly veiled response to Russian President Vladimir Putin's New York Times op-ed, Obama reiterated his belief that America is an exceptional country.
"Some may disagree, but I believe that America is exceptional," Obama said, "in part because we have shown a willingness, through the sacrifice of blood and treasure, to stand up not only for our own narrow self-interest, but for the interests of all."
The world needs the United States, Obama said, saying it would be a mistake for the country turn away from the world's hotspots due to what he has called in the past "war fatigue" among Americans.
"The danger for the world is that the United States, after a decade of war; rightly concerned about issues back home; and aware of the hostility that our engagement in the region has engendered throughout the Muslim World, may disengage, creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill," Obama said. "I believe that would be a mistake. I believe America must remain engaged for our own security. I believe the world is better for it."
Evan McMorris-Santoro is the White House correspondent for BuzzFeed News.
Contact Evan McMorris-Santoro at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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