President Barack Obama reset U.S. foreign policy in realistic ways Tuesday during his annual speech at the United Nations General Assembly.
It was in need of resetting in the wake of recent developments, particularly the shift in the U.S. approach to the problem of chemical weapons in Syria after Mr. Obama's threat of a U.S. attack appeared unlikely to win the approval of Congress and did not have the support of the public. Russia, embodying an international approach, threw Mr. Obama a lifeline, offering a negotiated way out.
Based on the subjects covered in his speech, Mr. Obama appeared to reverse his policy "pivot to Asia" from 2011, returning U.S. focus to the Middle East. He underlined, in addition to Syria, the importance of the peace talks underway between the Israelis and Palestinians. He also showed concern over Egypt's suppression of political opposition and freedom of the press, acknowledged some past U.S. failures in addressing Middle East problems and promised continued attention to Iran's nuclear program and potentially explosive spots such as Bahrain.
Mr. Obama shared the stage in New York figuratively with new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. There was speculation that the two might meet in the halls of the United Nations for at least a brief handshake, breaking a 34-year absence of such high-level contact, but it did not happen. Secretary of State John F. Kerry is scheduled to meet today with Mr. Rouhani as part of a group that will include representatives of China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom. Mr. Rouhani's own speech can be seen as a continuation of his extending an olive branch to Iran's critics, expressing a willingness to talk about its nuclear program, the Tehran government's chief bone of contention with the West, Israel and some of the Sunni Arab states.
Mr. Obama's speech was preceded by that of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, jabbing back at the United States over the National Security Agency spying on her, other senior Brazilian officials and the country's big oil company, Petrobras, a rival of U.S. oil firms. In his address Mr. Obama promised to revisit the issue of America's surveillance program.
The president's speech at the United Nations was useful to Americans as well as to other countries that are seeking to make sense of U.S. foreign policy in Mr. Obama's second term. To some degree the relative disorder in overseas policy reflects the political chaos of Washington, approaching both a shutdown of most of the government and a possible default on America's debts as soon as next month. It's hard to concentrate on the neighbors' problems when the children are tearing down the curtains.