At U.N., Obama Sets New Tone, but Problems Are Familiar

UNITED NATIONS — The United States is ready to begin a new era of engagement with the world, President Obama said Wednesday in a sweeping address to the United Nations General Assembly in which he sought to clearly delineate differences between his administration and that of former President George W. Bush.

“We have re-engaged the United Nations,” Mr. Obama said, to cheers from world leaders and delegates in the cavernous hall of the General Assembly. “We have paid our bills” — a direct reference to the former administration, which often tied paying its United Nations dues to demands for reforms of the institution.

An array of world leaders sat in the hall for Mr. Obama’s speech, which was often interrupted by applause and the flashbulbs of cameras going off, including some from delegates in the room.

But even as Mr. Obama sought to signal a changed tone in America’s dealings with the world, much of his speech centered on old and intractable issues, including Iran’s nuclear ambitions and a Middle East peace process. And while his choice of words was different and more conciliatory, the backbone of American policy he expressed remained similar to the Bush administration’s in many areas.

Just as Mr. Bush once did, Mr. Obama singled out Iran and North Korea for their pursuit of nuclear weapons. “In their actions to date, the governments of North Korea and Iran threaten to take us down this dangerous slope,” Mr. Obama said. “We respect their rights as members of the community of nations. I am committed to diplomacy that opens a path to greater prosperity and a more secure peace for both nations if they live up to their obligations.”

But, he added, “if the governments of Iran and North Korea choose to ignore international standards; if they put the pursuit of nuclear weapons ahead of regional stability and the security and opportunity of their own people; if they are oblivious to the dangers of escalating nuclear arms races in both East Asia and the Middle East — then they must be held accountable. The world must stand together to demonstrate that international law is not an empty promise, and that treaties will be enforced. We must insist that the future not belong to fear.”

As he spoke, the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, sat in the fifth row, displaying no visible reaction. Iran maintains that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.

Mr. Obama’s address to the General Assembly is the headline event in a day of many headlines. Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the Libyan leader, listened to Mr. Obama from the hall and then took the podium for a diatribe notable as much for its length — about 90 minutes — as for its range of topics, from the functioning of the United Nations to the H1N1 virus. Later this afternoon, Mr. Ahmadinejad is to speak.

Mr. Obama said he planned to work toward a comprehensive peace deal between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and indicated again that he was impatient with the slow pace of work on interim measures like a settlement freeze and was now swinging for the harder, more entrenched final status issues that have bedeviled peace negotiators since 1979.

“The time has come to relaunch negotiations — without preconditions — that address the permanent-status issues: security for Israelis and Palestinians; borders, refugees and Jerusalem,” Mr. Obama said. “The goal is clear: two states living side by side in peace and security — a Jewish state of Israel, with true security for all Israelis; and a viable, independent Palestinian state with contiguous territory that ends the occupation that began in 1967, and realizes the potential of the Palestinian people.

“As we pursue this goal, we will also pursue peace between Israel and Lebanon, Israel and Syria, and a broader peace between Israel and its many neighbors. In pursuit of that goal, we will develop regional initiatives with multilateral participation, alongside bilateral negotiations.”

At the end of his speech, much of the hall — but not the Iranian delegation — applauded.

Mr. Obama left the hall shortly before Colonel Qaddafi began speaking. (9.23.2009, Helene Cooper)

0homefly.gif (8947 bytes)