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

Jon Ward Contributor
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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.

“These negotiations can be difficult. And I am going to push as hard as I can to make sure that we get strong sanctions that have consequences for Iran as it’s making calculations about its nuclear program,” Obama said.

The president did say that “the Chinese have sent official representatives to negotiations in New York, to begin the process of drafting a sanctions resolution.”

But he also admitted that not even a new round of penalties against Tehran would necessarily deter them from obtaining nuclear weapons.

“Sanctions are not a magic wand. Unfortunately, nothing in international relations is,” Obama said. He added that sanctions would “change the calculus of a country like Iran, so that they see that there are more costs and fewer benefits to pursuing a nuclear-weapons program.”

Obama faced skepticism from the leaders of Turkey and Brazil, who are both on the U.N. Security Council but are not permanent members like China and Russia and thus do not hold veto powers that could stop sanctions.

Obama met with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva for 45 minutes, in an unscheduled trilateral meeting, to hear them out on an alternative proposal besides voting on sanctions at the U.N.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy told reporters that he too had met with Lula Da Silva and indicated he had told the Brazilian that the world must pursue sanctions at the U.N.

“I’m not criticizing President Lula, but we’ve agreed … that this is the last chance initiative and it has to happen very swiftly,” Sarkozy said, speaking of sanctions, which he predicted would be agreed upon no later than next month.

Sarkozy called a nuclear Iran “potentially the most dangerous crisis we are facing,” which was somewhat at odds with the Obama administration’s declarations over the past two days that a nuclear-armed terrorist group was the greatest existential threat to the world.

“At some point something needs to be done,” Sarkozy said, adding that “consensus is close.”

As for the Middle East, Obama appeared to back away from talk of a U.S.-sponsored plan for peace talks, after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who skipped the summit in Washington, said he would reject any road map that was “forced on us.”

“The United States can’t impose solutions unless the participants in these conflicts are willing to break out of old patterns of antagonism,” Obama said. “What we can make sure of is that we are constantly present, constantly engaged and setting out very clearly to both sides our belief that not only is it in the interest of each party to resolve these conflicts, but it’s also in the interest of the United States.”

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