People in the United States are about to get another stark reminder that the world is facing a set of crises that could, at any moment, set it tumbling into chaos. The United Nations will host the leaders of 120 nations and their entourages this week in a meeting sure to highlight major differences on a set of issues.
No one should expect the issues to be resolved any time soon, and it is unfortunate that the meetings coincide with the heat of the presidential campaign season in the United States. That timing means solutions and tough language will be too easily interpreted as campaign tactics, which could detract from the seriousness of the issues at hand.
The session is an important opportunity for President Barack Obama, and not just in terms of politics. In his speech, he needs to carefully and forcefully inform Iran that the United States does not intend to allow it to establish a nuclear weapons program, and to inform Russia and China that they need to stop blocking efforts by the Security Council to pressure Syria to end the slaughter of its own people. He needs to explain why these issues are important to the rest of the world.
He also should use the opportunity to teach the world why the United States values the freedom of speech, even of speech deemed offensive by some. This message is necessary in wake of the recent deadly attack of a U.S. consulate in Libya and confusion about the administration's response.
These things alone are not likely to change positions or force resolutions. Neither Russian President Vladimir Putin nor Chinese President Hu Jintao are expected to attend. Likewise, Syrian President Bashar Assad will likely stay away. But the United States should be clear on where it stands and what it demands.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu muddied the Iranian situation this week by urging Obama to take stronger action. That was seen by some as a possible signal he favors Mitt Romney's candidacy. Some Israeli voices now worry Israel may have harmed itself should Obama be re-elected. In Netanyahu's defense, however, Israel feels the Iranian threat much more acutely than do people in the United States. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has threatened Israel's existence with belligerent language through the years. In comments earlier this week he called Israel a "fake regime" and accused the United States of shielding Israel's nuclear program.
The extent of Iran's nuclear capabilities is disputed, but Israeli officials believe Iran is on the verge of being able to consolidate its operations within the protection of a mountain, which would make it much more difficult to remove by way of a strategic strike. Should Israel decide to launch such a strike before that time, however, it could set off a new round of turmoil in the region, while changing the tenor of the elections in the United States.
So far, foreign policy issues have not played the dominant role in that election. The economy remains in the forefront, surrounded by a bunch of peripheral noise about tax returns and other personal issues. The meetings at the U.N. ought to bring foreign policy matters back into sharp focus. The world is a dangerous place, and how the United States reacts to unfolding issues will have vast implications on the the cause of freedom.