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Obama at the U.N.: Seems Not Like Old Times

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his first address to the United Nations General Assembly September 23, 2009. Brian Zak/Sipa Press via AP Images

What a difference a year makes.

Last year, President Barack Obama led a U.N. Security Council meeting on nuclear non-proliferation and obtained consensus on making nuclear weapons reduction his flagship issue. U.S. relations with the Muslim world were improving, and the president was treated with rock star status. Diplomats even talked about his potential — somewhere in the future — to lead the world body.

At U.N. headquarters next week, Mr. Obama will be back, and 192 nations will be watching for leadership. This time, the messages are more diffuse, and the pitfalls deep. The challenge for the president is to define a message that can carry the day.

This year, Mr. Obama is facing a tough economic road at home, with unemployment over 9%. Even as he addresses the U.N. goal of eradicating poverty, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that in 2009 more Americans lived in poverty than ever before. And, with economic issues playing a leading role in the U.S. midterm elections, the U.S. Congress is challenging him to pressure China on currency and trade issues.

Three months before last year's U.N. speech, President Obama delivered a speech in Cairo, aimed at launching an initiative to improve U.S. relations with the Muslim world. This year, the controversy surrounding the Islamic Interfaith Center near New York's Ground Zero, and the threatened burning of the Quran by a Florida preacher caused strong sentiment against the U.S. in Muslim nations.

If, as Voltaire said, the perfect is the enemy of the good, President Obama's efforts to address every important issue may blur his priorities and lessen his impact.

The State Department previewed the four priorities Mr. Obama will discuss in two major addresses before the U.N.: the eradication of poverty; improving the U.N.'s peacekeeping and security; promoting human rights; and tackling environmental challenges.

The President will also participate in a meeting run by the U.N. Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, on the Sudan.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said that nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea will be high on his agenda.

The non-proliferation message is particularly treacherous. At the U.N., the focus has been several rounds of sanctions against Iran and North Korea. Mr. Obama called for a world free of nuclear weapons one year ago. But creeping into the scene less-than-noticed are the nuclear energy ambitions of several Arab states: Kuwait, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. They are all looking to develop their nuclear energy programs to offset the domestic use of electricity so that they can export their petroleum. But the dual use of uranium enrichment — the reason the world is nervous about Iran's nuclear programs — makes the proposals particularly dicey.

Then, there is the Israel nuclear issue. The Obama administration has restarted the Middle East peace talks, and meetings are planned during the week when regional leaders are in New York. Several U.S. administrations before Barack Obama have called for a nuclear-free Middle East. But when the United States participates in the U.N. Human Rights Council and the Non-proliferation Treaty review (both of which do not include Israel), criticisms abound. Tensions between the U.S. and Israel have abated, and President Obama must be careful about sowing seeds of doubt about U.S. support for the peace process.

So, here's what to watch for in the week to come:

President Barack Obama is scheduled to address the U.N. twice next week: Wednesday, during the U.N.'s anti-poverty Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) meeting; and Thursday morning, during the annual General Assembly debate. He will also be involved in the Friday Sudan meeting, and may participate in a Security Council summit.

President Obama will have one-on-one meetings with several world leaders, including Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who are in an imbroglio about a boat collision in the East China Sea.

Mr. Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the New START treaty this year in Prague and the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee just approved it. The agreement still requires ratification from the Senate and from Russia's legislature.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has a dizzying agenda, mainly concentrating on Middle East peace talks.

Another usual headliner: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has already landed in New York, offering direct talks with the U.S. on its nuclear program and calling for the release of Iranian nationals in U.S. custody. Protests against his regime and the disputed June 2009 elections are scheduled for Thursday.

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who led the headlines last year by tearing up a U.N. charter and speaking well past his designated time, is not scheduled, but efforts to have Libya expelled from the Human Rights Council are.

And because the anti-poverty meeting takes place before the General Assembly's annual debate — and about 140 nations will have their Heads of State at U.N. Headquarters — New York City can expect higher security and more gridlock than at any time in its history. Don't even think about bringing your car into Manhattan unless you enjoy sitting in traffic jams.

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