President Barack Obama has placed multilateralism and the United Nations at the forefront of his foreign policy.
But he's just not that into it right now.
Earlier this year, Obama rebuffed a request by Ban Ki-moon to attend the international U.N. Summit on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro. And next week, Obama will give short shrift to world leaders converging on midtown Manhattan for the annual diplo-talk fest that is called the U.N. General Debate and what most were hoping would allow a face-to-face meeting with the American president. As it turns out, they'll barely get a glimpse of him.
In what is scheduled to be one of the briefest presidential appearances at a U.N. General Assembly debate in recent memory, Obama will sit for a brief meeting with Ban, deliver his speech before foreign leaders, then head cross-town to speak at former President Bill Clinton's Global Initiative forum (a couple of hours after Governor Mitt Romney addresses the gathering), according to U.S. officials.
All those world leaders -- including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had been eager to press Obama to take a more confrontational approach to Iran; Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy, who infuriated Washington over his tepid first reaction to attacks on the U.S. embassy in Cairo; and French President Francois Hollande, who had expected to meet with Obama -- will have to wait for another opportunity.
"Historically, Obama has never liked big multilateral summits (he hates meeting EU leaders for example) so U.N. is no fun for him," Richard Gowan, a U.N. specialist at NYU's Center for International Coalition, said in a Twitter interview on Wednesday with Turtle Bay. "Once the big speech is complete, Obama doesn't get any electoral benefits from gabbing with other leaders."
He may have an election just around the corner, but Obama's U.N. diplomatic drive-by comes as the United States is confronted with a series of American national security crises abroad, including a major political, military, and human rights calamity in Syria.
Last week, U.S. embassies around the Islamic world were the subject of violent demonstrations, including an armed assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that resulted in the death of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
Obama's reticence to engage with world leaders in New York reflects a president in full campaign mode, keen to avoid any new foreign policy commitments or controversies, particularly on Iran, where the president is seeking to deflect increasingly vocal demands by Netanyahu to take a more confrontational approach to Iran's nuclear program.
Gowan said he anticipated Obama's U.N. speech to target American voters, offering tough condemnation of Iran, sharp criticism of Russia and China for their failure to support sanctions against Syria, but few new commitments. "What he won't do is make any big promises for second about climate change or international law," said Gowan.
Edward Luck, a U.N. historian and dean of the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego, said such a brief appearance by a president of the United States, the host government of the United Nations, was extremely rare and political unwise.
"Such a sudden exit would be unusual, to say the least. I'm not sure, but it occurs to me that Reagan may not have come to the opening of the GA every year," Luck said. I recall Bush being quite active on the bilaterals, which matter for domestic political purposes as well as for international ones."
"The General Debate is a great place to look presidential, something that should benefit an incumbent in a close race. Even if Obama decided not to take any bilaterals, so that they would not appear to be politicized by the election, it would not be good form to skip the [secretary general's] lunch. That could easily be seen as a snub, when both hope to need to work with each other over the next four years. "
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.