When world leaders last flew to New York for the opening of the UN General Assembly session, fallen Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi was a doomed man on the run, Egyptian democracy protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir square had prevailed and Syrians were struggling to be next.
A year later, the mood is darker. In Libya, the weakness of the post-Qaddafi government was demonstrated when gunmen attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, killing four Americans including the ambassador. The long-suppressed Muslim Brotherhood dominates Egyptian politics, a development being closely watched by Israel and the U.S. In Syria, what began as a non-violent uprising has degenerated into a sectarian war claiming some 20,000 lives as diplomacy stalls and President Bashar al-Assad fights for his survival.
“The bloom has come off the rose,” said Charles Kupchan, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University. “The initial reaction was excessive optimism that we were at the beginning of liberal democracy in the Middle East and that is not how the region has played out.”
Making their debut at the 193-member General Assembly are the new leaders of young governments in the so-called Arab Spring nations who came in to deliver economic results and now must also address anti-Western sentiment trigged by an anti-Islam video that enraged their Muslim electorate.
The setting of the gathering, the United Nations headquarters in New York, serves as a reminder of the world body’s failure to stop the killing of civilians in Syria. After dominating the Security Council’s time for more than a year, a third and final veto by Russia in July buried the matter.
‘Period of Unease’
“We are living through a period of unease,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said at the opening of the 67th session of the General Assembly on Sept. 18. “We are also seeing incidents of intolerance and hatred that are then exploited by others. Voices of moderation and calm need to make themselves heard at this time.”
Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, will be in New York for four days as will the leaders of Libya, Yemen and Tunisia -- the other countries that cast away the old guard.
The legacy of those revolutions, the role of the Arab League in handling regional conflicts and humanitarian aid to Syria will be the topics on the sidelines of what is the UN’s busiest week.
Whether there will be results is another matter. Western diplomats said on condition of anonymity that there is no chance of a breakthrough on Syria, and not just because of Russia’s opposition. With a U.S. election two months away, there is little appetite for another U.S. military foray after Libya.
Two things have stumped policy makers, one diplomat said, speaking anonymously because diplomacy is private. One is the spread of violence in the region and the other is the success of political Islam as a consequence of toppling of autocratic regimes.
“These are home-grown revolutions and outside actors have very little influence,” said Kupchan, who worked at the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton and is now a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations.
The Arab Spring is the start of a 30-year transition, according to a senior Western diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity. Islamist governments can either be moderated by being in power or, if they are unsuccessful in delivering what people want, they get voted out, the official said.
The UN speeches are scheduled to begin on Sept. 25, with Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff kicking the day off, followed by President Barack Obama, swinging through town for less than 24 hours without scheduling any bilateral meetings in that time.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose quest for statehood dominated last year’s proceedings, will be back with lowered expectations. This time, in his speech, he plans to ask for a less controversial upgrade of Palestinian status at the UN that falls short of recognition of sovereignty.
Each year holds a surprise. One development few would have predicted 12 months ago was the political awakening in Myanmar. Thein Sein, the retired general behind the country’s emergence from five decades of isolation, will deliver his first speech as president.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is set to make his annual appearance at the podium, an event typically featuring anti-semitic declarations that prompt Western delegates to walk out of the hall in protest.
Still, it’s his country’s nuclear program rather a renewed verbal assault on Israel that will draw the most attention.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who will address the assembly a day later, has said that Iran’s effort to develop nuclear weapons is now in a “red zone” and is urging a tougher stance from the Obama administration.
“We will not engage in an endless process of negotiations that fail to produce any results,” U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice yesterday told a Security Council meeting on nuclear sanctions against Iran. “We must therefore remain clear and united in seeking resolution of the international community’s concerns regarding Iran’s nuclear program. Time is wasting.”
Officials from the U.S. and the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna have said that Iran has stepped up its efforts to enrich uranium to about 20 percent, though there’s no evidence that it’s moved to the 90 percent that’s needed to make nuclear weapons. Iran says its nuclear program is intended only for civilian purposes.
There are no limits to how much a leader can talk once he’s holding court at the UN.
Fidel Castro holds the Guinness Book of Records mark with his 1960 speech at General Assembly: four hours and 29 minutes.
Octogenarian Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s dictator since 1980, used to rival Qaddafi when it came to anti-colonial tirades. One of the last standing dictators, Mugabe is scheduled to be back this year.
-- Editors: Terry Atlas, Michael Shepard