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Multilateralism, Iran sanctions and a quiet signal on Afghanistan?

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Paul Mason | 19:40 UK time, Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Here's the executive summary of what I think is going on at the UN today. Obama's speech was a sustained attempt to reinforce America's new, multilateralist stance. He acknowledged that frustration with unilateral action had created a "pervasive anti-Americanism" that is getting in the way of united action. He acknowledge also that the USA had pursued democracy selectively in the past. That whole part of his speech was pitched at the level of principle and designed to change the mood music.

Then, almost in realtime, we are getting an applied demonstration of what that means in practice. Obama signalled a review of the USA's nuclear posture. This plus the withdrawal of the planned missile defence shield in East Europe now seems to have prompted the Russians to reciprocate - one member of President Medvedev's team signalling to the press that there will be movement on sanctions against Iran if the IAEA provides evidence to base it on. Right now there is a foreign ministers' meeting going on to discuss what international pressure the UN might place on Iran over nuclear weapons.

Then, a second demonstration of what it means to build alliances with people you don't like: Muammar Gaddafi delivers a long and rambling speech, calling for the UN to be relocated, and calling the Security Council the "Terror Council", complaining about jetlag also. But Gaddafi is now "one of our" dictators and is being tolerated.

There was a third striking aspect of Obama's speech. He omitted any mention of the Taliban, outlining the mission in Afghanistan thus:

"We have set a clear and focused goal: to work with all members of this body to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its extremist allies - a network that has killed thousands of people of many faiths and nations, and that plotted to blow up this very building. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, we - and many nations here - are helping those governments develop the capacity to take the lead in this effort, while working to advance opportunity and security for their people."

The background to this is a growing debate within the US administration over Afghan strategy. At the weekend the leaked McCrystal report showed Obama is being advised to boost troop numbers, accepting initial higher casualties, or face possible defeat in Afghanistan. Today it emerged there is another option being considered: abandoning counterinsurgency versus the Taliban in favour of a targeted anti-terror campaign against Al Qaeda, based partially in Pakistan.

Obama, we are told, wants to take his time rethinking Afghan strategy; the US media is interpreting this as a victory for Vice President Joe Biden, who has been pushing for a switch of focus to Al Qaeda, not the Taliban.

Obviously now we are in a world of multilateral diplomacy, it will be interesting to hear what America's NATO partners contribute to this rethink, particularly those who have advocated long-term military involvement on the ground in Afghanistan, in order to rebuild democracy and safeguard women's rights and generally achieve nation-building.


  • Comment number 1.

    I wonder how he expects to buy over the support or compliance the Taliban (and by that I mean all the groups in armed resistance to the United States) when the occupations's puppet government is clearly shaky and the insurgency in a phase of growing influence across the country. I suspect the change of focus Joe is proposing means a change of focus in the presentation of the conflict to the electorate, not a material change in military strategy.

  • Comment number 2.

    Afghan war for women's rights! Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha
    Good one Paul! Ha Ha Ha Ha
    Do you know any more? Ha Ha Ha

  • Comment number 3.

    What no Tolkein ?

    Rebuild democracy and women's rights?

    A new principle and mood ?

  • Comment number 4.

    Yeah, lets talk about central Asian oil pipelines and military bases if we want a substantial discussion of American intreasts in the region. We wouldn't have so many boots on the ground in that region if it's main product was cuckoo clocks and chocolate-or if Afghanistan was not in such convenient striking distance from China and Russia.

    Death to Yankee Imperialism, Long Live the World Revolution !

  • Comment number 5.

    When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,
    And the women come out to cut up what remains,
    Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
    An' go to your Gawd like a soldier.
    Go, go, go like a soldier,
    Go, go, go like a soldier,
    Go, go, go like a soldier,
    So-oldier _of_ the Queen!
    -Rudyard Kipling

  • Comment number 6.

    Return of the King

    those from Mordor who for years have been injecting the war on terror narrative will be going cold turkey?

    now to lift the curse on the uk we just need to remove the Orcs from the FO?

  • Comment number 7.

    Scotland the Knave Baronessing up yet further.

    Failing to catch some quality time with the Big O behind the bit of a pickle shelf in the hotel kitchen.

    And your new best bud showing just what a guy to do business with he really is.

    Truly a man to be reassured is getting on with the job of herding his GOATs on our behalf.

  • Comment number 8.

    Obama is making a good fist of the poor deck George W left him with. Sure, there are going to be those who criticise but the funds for war are just not there and the real American political cockpit is now in the domestic arena. So soft power is the name of the game to keep the opponents of the USA on the back foot. Good luck to Obama! If it also means our boys and girls get to come home with their heads held high then I am all for it.

    The thing that I respect about Obama is the simple integrity and the good sense. I just wish the people of Britain were as well served.

  • Comment number 9.


    My take on Magic Obama's UN speech.

    Print out his address. (Ask who wrote it if you care to - HE read it.)
    Then MARK THE TEXT LIKE A SCHOOL-TEACHER. Only then will you begin to get a true insight into this new saviour.

    It is depressingly similar to the stuff 'Great Communicator' Blair is apt to deliver. Great it isn't - communicate it doesn't. Integrity it hasn't.

  • Comment number 10.

    First signs of the exit strategy then admit that they have been talking to the Taliban. Where next? Iran - conveniently next door to US Iraq's 100K army. Spend more time pulling out of underwriting everything Israel does and maybe the middle east will be less troublesome.

  • Comment number 11.

    Why does UK need 4 nuclear subs?
    Israel has an open threat against Iran ... Iran has its right to protect itself ... deal with it!

  • Comment number 12.

    Here, here to the above comment. The Islamic Republic is flawed, but we the disgruntled of whatever stripe must defend it as the bastion of Third World resistance that it continues to be.


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