When he takes the podium at the United Nations General Assembly tomorrow, President Obama will be addressing a world that has profoundly shifted in just two weeks. Through the years of the war on terror, the annual East River convocation has been a cockpit of snarls, full of bluster and threat. But this week, the United Nations unexpectedly opens its 68th session with diplomacy ascendant, and the world body itself with startling new relevance.
Russia and the United States are pursuing an unprecedented partnership on Syria. China is looking to join in, as the UN Security Council finds itself the wheelhouse of crisis. Syria has gone from denying any chemical weapons to agreeing to catalogue its arsenal. On another front, Tehran has signaled a readiness to back away from nuclear weaponization, and, as a gesture of good will, has recently released high-level political prisoners. When Iran’s new president, Hasan Rouhani, follows Obama to the podium tomorrow, he will likely show the world a new face of moderation. Rouhani and Obama may even meet, if only “accidentally” — a follow-on to their recent exchange of letters. Meanwhile, Israeli and Palestinian peace negotiators reportedly met again recently. Despite ongoing acrimony, the very existence of these talks resuscitates the possibility, long left for dead, of a two-state solution.
Every one of these developments, while fragile, offers the hope of further progress. In just a few weeks, the international scene has moved from the threshold of a major war escalation to a gateway of conciliation unlike any seen in too long.
The fog of war is well known, but there is a fog of diplomacy, too. In the throes of the crisis following chemical weapons use in Syria, Obama charged, then retreated. His turning to Congress for authorization seemed feckless. After explicitly drawing a red line, he then said doing so had been the whole world’s decision. He may have confused his own credibility with America’s. Secretary of State John Kerry stumbled over his own belligerence into the opening with Russia. Preparing an agreement with Syrian leader Bashar Assad may help him stay in power. What gives?
If President Obama had actually launched his much ballyhooed military attack earlier this month, there would be no promise of progress. The results in Syria would have been straightforward destruction. In Washington, Obama would have been praised or reviled, up or down. But no such clear-cut reactions followed upon his last-minute change of mind. A denigrating consensus, bridging the political divide, now faults Obama for ambivalence, mixed signals, humiliating dependency on Vladimir Putin, an altogether muddled foreign policy. Challenged by an interviewer, Obama decried his critics’ obsession with style points. “Had we rolled out something that was very smooth and disciplined and linear,” he said, “they would have graded it well even if it was a disastrous policy.”
This is what leadership in a democracy looks like.
And there’s the point. Through all of the storm and stress, the unusually isolated Obama has done two things exactly right: he did reinforce the world’s red line against chemical weapons use, and in doing so he reinvigorated America’s role as an upholder of international order. A month ago, many other nations were prepared to shrug off the chemical use in Syria, if only out of impotence. Obama stopped that cold. Because of him, the moral bulwark against chemical weapons is stronger than ever.
And second, by powerfully marshaling the case for a military response — and then not ordering it, he created this larger opening for diplomacy. Unknown to the public, it was prepared for by patient back-channel communications with Moscow. The cajoling of other nations was not “smooth,” nor was the jostling with Congress “linear,” to use Obama’s words. But, showing enormous discipline, this president stayed with what mattered most: He did not go to war. His shift may have been as much a reaction to antiwar public opinion as to his own innate reluctance. But that does not demean Obama; it honors him. This is what leadership in a democracy looks like; what appears to be a messy and uncertain process is the way to end up in the right place.
At the decisive moment, the burden of choice was Obama’s alone. He acted on instinct, and it proved wise.
Obama will not crow tomorrow, but, through fits of diplomacy instead of fires of violence, he put the United Nations squarely at the center of the world’s most urgent problem, something no leader has done in years. That alone is a triumph.
James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.