Obama at UN: "Rational choice" not to hold bi-lats, says Inderfurth

President Barack Obama didn't meet with any world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly in New York City this week, generating some criticism. Headlines like Reuters' "In Obama's trip to New York, there's Whoopi but no 'Bibi" questioned the President's decision to prioritize campaigning over governing.

In this week's Face to Face interview, veteran diplomat Rick Inderfurth says the President's decision not to meet with other leaders was "a rational choice." Inderfurth, who knows a thing or two about the United Nations from his years serving as a U.S. representative to the UN under President Bill Clinton, conceded that "usually" presidents meet with leaders while attending the UNGA, "but usually, it's not during an election year."

Inderfurth described the President's choice as a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" scenario. If the President had agreed to sit down with one leader, Inderfurth told Bob Schieffer, "he would have had to see three or four or five or six."

Instead, Pres. Obama focused his energies in New York on the voters -- on Tuesday afternoon, he taped an interview for the popular talk show The View. "World leaders can't vote," said Inderfurth, but women who watch daytime television can.

Inderfurth suggested that the people most disgruntled by the President's decision to skip bilateral meetings weren't the world leaders themselves: "I think most of them understood why he wasn't seeing them." He went on to highlight the various ways in which the President engages with other world leaders. Last week, Pres. Obama and Afghanistan's President, Hamid Karzai, spoke for an hour via a "Kabul-to-Washington" video uplink.

One likely topic of discussion during that video conference? The number of "green on blue" attacks that have occurred in Afghanistan. More than 50 coalition troops were killed between January 2012 and mid-August 2012 by uniformed Afghans who turned their guns on allied troops. Inderfurth says he's troubled by these numbers. In his view, they indicate that "right now, there are real questions about the training program, which is really our exit strategy from Afghanistan."

The US plan calls for combat troops to withdraw by 2014, leaving 20,000 troops in the country in an "advisory role." At that point, Afghan forces would take full responsibility for national security.

Schieffer asked Inderfurth whether the US could stick to its withdrawal schedule if Afghans forces continued to commit violence against coalition troops. Inderfruth agreed that it would be difficult to pull the plug, but insisted, "the training mission is something that we've done around the world. We know how to do that."

Inderfurth's primary concern is one he believes the administration must address: getting Afghanistan's neighbors to "agree that as we leave, they will not interfere in Afghanistan's internal affairs." Historically, Pakistan, Iran, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia have all interfered "one way or another, in Afghanistan's internal affairs." So after 2014, Inderfurth asks, "will they keep their hands off?"

The amount of uncertainty overall leads Inderfurth to conclude that problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan may be "a chronic disease that we just have to live with, and do the best we can to manage." His hope? Afghanistan "needs to have an awakening where it's they who take control of their lives and their destiny. We can't do it for them forever. Maybe that will come about. That's the best I can do."

  • Alicia Budich

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