Four things to watch as Obama heads to the United Nations

Laura Rozen
The Envoy

President Barack Obama arrived in New York on Monday to join world leaders at the biggest annual diplomatic cocktail party of the year. That is, the flurry of events that surround the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly.

Here are four things to watch for this week.

1. Who gets a meeting with Obama--and who does not.

Obama's approval ratings may have slumped in the United States, but he remains the star attraction at the United Nations. Face time with the president is a potent reward for world leaders; denying it can send an equally powerful signal.

Among those on the list who will meet with Obama in New York this week: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyuahu, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, Libyan transition leader Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, new Japanese Prime Minister Noda, European allies including British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and new South Sudanese leader Salva Kiir.

Who is missing? Notably, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Washington is pointedly signaling its displeasure at Abbas for his refusal so far to heed Washington's demands to abandon plans to seek an upgrade of Palestine's official status at the UN, in the absence of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Also deprived of face time with Obama will be Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, of course. While early in his presidency Obama sought to promote the possibility of diplomatic engagement with Iran as a way to curtail Iran's nuclear program, Iran's refusal to meaningfully engage with Washington is old news at this point.

"There are going to be a lot of new faces representing Middle Eastern countries at this year's U.N.G.A., specifically from Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt," the Ploughshare Fund's Joel Rubin told The Envoy Monday.  "But it's the old ones--such as Israel's Netanyahu, Iran's Ahmadinejad, and Palestine's Abbas--who will command the spotlight.

"Each of these leaders is aggressively seeking salvation at the U.N.G.A. in their own way: Netanyahu wants Europe to back him up on the Palestine vote to swat down Abbas's move; Ahmadinejad wants to bluster and show that he's still in charge of Iran, while an Iranian nuclear weapon is neither imminent nor inevitable; and Abbas wants the U.N. to validate his diplomatic strategy for statehood," Rubin wrote in an email.

2. "You say Palestine, I say Libya": The Obama administration will try to change the subject to Libya.

The Obama administration looked somewhat askance two years ago when the Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi came to New York for the General Assembly festivities, looking for a place to pitch his tent.

This year, of course, Gadhafi has gone into hiding and the Obama administration is breathing a sigh of relief that its gamble to intervene militarily with NATO allies to oust him has succeeded.

Obama will meet with Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, the head of Libya's transitional government-in-waiting, in New York on Tuesday morning, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told journalists at a press conference Friday.

The Obama administration's focus on Libya this week allows the United States to highlight a success, as it desperately tries to change the subject from a high-profile failure—the collapsed Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and Palestinians' plans to seek international recognition at the United Nations this month, against Washington's strenuous objections.

The focus on Libya serves a more substantive purpose, too: international policymakers are keenly aware that what looks like a diplomatic success at the moment could come to haunt them if security and governance are not restored in the oil-rich, weapons-strewn North African nation which has hardly any governmental institutions and has known no other leader than Gadhafi in 42 years.

3. What does Obama say on Wednesday?

Obama addressees the General Assembly on Wednesday. How will the president deal with diplomatically awkward issues like the collapsed Israeli-Palestinian peace process—the major focus of his address to the same body last year—as well as the global economic crisis, while trying to promote a message of hope and American diplomatic engagement with the world?

Watch for Obama to emphasize the United States sticking to its timetable for the military withdrawal from Iraq, its plans to reduce its forces in Afghanistan, and the opportunities presented by the Arab awakening.

"I think he'll have a chance to address the dramatic change that's taken place in the course of last year … with democratic transitions in many different parts of the world; from the creation of independent South Sudan, the ... transfer of power to a democratically elected leader in Cote d'Ivoire, but, of course, also the Arab Spring and the events in Egypt and Tunisia and Libya, as well as the ongoing struggles for democratic change in Syria," Ben Rhodes said. Obama will "of course, address the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and express our support for a negotiated, two-state solution between the parties," Rhodes went on. "And he'll be discussing the nonproliferation agenda that has been critical to his national security policy ... as well as our efforts to get the global economy moving as we approach a G20 meeting in France."

4. The Palestinian drama.

The issue that will dominate this year's General Assembly is one Obama will not be in town for, no doubt deliberately.

Obama will leave New York on Wednesday, the same day as his address to the General Assembly and two days before Netanyahu and Abbas are due to speak.

Obama will not be present when that diplomatically thorny issue plays out, leaving it in the hands of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations.