Obama says U.S. must play leadership role ‘like it or not’

At the end of three days of diplomatic negotiation with a seemingly endless procession of world leaders in Washington, President Obama sounded a note of fatigue Tuesday over his attempts to marshal support for sanctions against Iran, to secure loose nuclear weapons materials and to resolve the Middle East peace process.

“It is a vital national security interest of the United States to reduce these conflicts because whether we like it or not, we remain a dominant military superpower. And when conflicts break out, one way or another, we get pulled into them,” Obama said at a press conference to wind down the summit he called to focus on the threat of terrorists obtaining a nuclear weapon.

“And that ends up costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure,” he said. “So I’m going to keep on at it. But … there will be frustrations.”

His comment reflected an acknowledgment that despite progress and momentum on some fronts — the summit garnered support from 46 other nations — the path toward getting a new round of sanctions at the United Nations remains difficult and peace talks are currently going nowhere.

One of Obama’s top advisers said the president was not expressing a reluctance to play the leadership role in the world that the U.S. has held for the last several decades.

“He was saying we are the global superpower. Like it or not that means that we are going to have to play a role,” said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.

“It was not speaking about not wanting to play that role,” Rhodes said. “The United States should continue to play that unique role as the global superpower that underpins global security. He basically was saying that the reason we should be proactive in trying to prevent conflicts and resolve conflicts is because our role as superpower we’re going to get involved.”

The comment will be fodder for those who think the president does not believe in the idea of American exceptionalism, the notion that U.S. global dominance is inherently a good thing because it restrains tyrants and promotes human rights and democracy.

The very fact that he called the summit, however, was evidence that Obama wants to play a global leadership role, even if his collaborative approach to diplomacy is quite different than President George W. Bush’s, which was more forceful but also drew much criticism for being unilateral.

On Tuesday, the aura of inevitability that the administration has tried to project around the likelihood of U.N. sanctions against Iran’s nuclear weapons program was reduced somewhat by statements from Russia and China.

Comments by Russian and Chinese officials emphasized reservations about sanctions even while expressing support for taking that route.

“China always believes that dialogue and negotiation are the best way out for the issue. Pressure and sanctions cannot fundamentally solve it,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu, who said Beijing supports a “dual track strategy” that emphasizes diplomacy with the possibility of sanctions.

A Chinese official in Washington said only that the government in Beijing was “ready to discuss” sanctions.

Russian official Arkady Dvorkovich, during a speech in Washington, said that “everything possible should be done to avoid Iran having nuclear arms.”

But the economic adviser to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said only that sanctions are “possible” that they should be carefully targeted at “political authorities” in order to avoid harming the Iranian people.

“The people should not be punished,” Dvorkovich said.

Obama has expressed great confidence in recent weeks over the chances of getting China and Russia to support sanctions against Iran, predicting two weeks ago that there would be an agreement within weeks. He acknowledged Tuesday that the outcome was not a certainty.