UNITED NATIONS - President Barack Obama was one of the first world leaders to speak here this morning at the opening of the 65th UN General Assembly. He painted a dire yet hopeful picture of the world, highlighting the continuing problems of economic turmoil, war, environmental degradation and terrorism.
The president walked a fine line. He took pains to show respect for all the world's cultures - for example, he referred to Iran by its full name, the Islamic Republic of Iran. But he also stressed a universal concept of freedom, democracy and human rights, saying that "each country will pursue a path rooted in the culture of its own people, yet experience shows us that history is on the side of liberty."
He spoke hawkishly about North Korea, calling it a "regime that enslaves its own people." But he rejected former President Bush's militarist foreign policy, saying, "Make no mistake, the ultimate success of democracy in the world won't come because the United States dictates it. It will come because individual citizens demand a say in how they are governed."
Obama's boldest statements came in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He noted progress in the fact that the leaders of Israel and Palestine met at the White House and are continuing direct face-to-face negotiations.
Dismissing "cynics" who say a solution to the conflict is impossible, Obama told the assembled heads of state that, if all goes well, "when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations - an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel." (Currently, the Palestinians' official UN status is as representatives of the Occupied Palestinian Territories.)
Obama urged world leaders, and the public, to "think not of ourselves, but of the young girl in Gaza who wants to have no ceiling on her dreams, or the young boy in Sderot who wants to sleep without the nightmare of rocket fire."
He urged supporters of both sides to help advance a peaceful resolution. "Those of us who consider ourselves friends of Israel must understand that true security for the Jewish state requires an independent Palestine, one that allows the Palestinian people to live with dignity and opportunity," he said.
On the other hand, he said, the Arab countries who have put forward the Arab Peace Initiative, widely accepted as the basis for a peace agreement, need to turn words into action. He chastizeed certain countries, without naming them, to accept that "Israel's existence is not a subject for debate" and that "the slaughter of innocent Israelis is not resistance; it's injustice."
On the issue of terror, Obama said, "Underneath these challenges lie deeper fears: that a world which has grown more interconnected has somehow slipped beyond our control." Global coordination is necessary to address the problem, he said.
He also emphasized global coordination and equality in regard to the economy. "We made the G-20 the focal point for international cooperation," he said, "because in a world where prosperity is more diffuse, we must broaden our circle of cooperation to include emerging economies."
Previously, the G-8, or Group of Eight, which included only the world's richest countries, worked to coordinate economic policy without any voice from developing countries. The move to working through the G-20, which includes Brazil, Saudi Arabia, China, India and countries from every region of the world, has been hailed as a move towards a more equitable global order.
"The global economy has been pulled back from the brink of depression," the president said, and then vowed not to rest until the "seeds of progress grow into a broader prosperity, for all Americans, and for people around the globe."
Obama also highlighted the withdrawal of 100,000 troops from Iraq and his plan to begin drawing down in Afghanistan. He also noted work with Russia on a new nuclear treaty.
While speaking of progress on reversing the growing trend towards nuclear armament, the president chastised Iran for being, of all the signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the only nation unable to demonstrate its compliance. "Actions have consequences," he said, but added, "the door remains open to diplomacy should Iran choose to walk through it."
The UN gathering, which will be attended by a total of 190 leaders, is the largest meeting of heads of state in history.
Photo: President Obama addresses world leaders at the UN General Assembly, Sept. 23. (United Nations photo)