President Obama gave a fine speech extolling free expression and democratic values at the United Nations on Tuesday, but he ought to have taken the time to meet one-on-one with a few heads of state. Although the annual opening of the UN General Assembly is more like speed dating than diplomacy, it is customary for the president to make face time for our allies there.
The White House has yet to give a good explanation for why Obama hosted a reception for world leaders but opted not to arrange a single bilateral meeting during his stay in New York. His decision was made all the more conspicuous by the fact that he took the time to appear on the daytime TV show “The View.”
Perhaps Obama did not want to open the can of worms that comes with picking which heads of state he had time to see. After all, secretaries of state do the heavy lifting at the United Nations even in non-campaign years. Or perhaps Obama did not want meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president of Egypt, to dominate the news cycle so close to the election.
Still, much of the criticism of Obama’s decision to forgo meetings appears to be disingenuous, because it has come from conservatives who have expressed disdain for the United Nations. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who held a conference call on the issue, routinely criticizes the world body as ineffective and biased against Israel. Mitt Romney has called the UN an “extraordinary failure” and issued a white paper accusing it of “confusing process with substance.” So the Romney campaign, which arranged the call with Cantor, can’t be too upset when Obama chooses not to spend much time there.