- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 20, 2009

UNITED NATIONS | President Obama’s popularity has slipped among Americans as he labors to pass a tough domestic agenda, but he can expect a warm welcome when he visits the United Nations this week.

Scores of world leaders are eager to hear Mr. Obama deliver his first speech to the world body and hope he will be more sympathetic to their needs and concerns than George W. Bush.

Where President Bush’s foreign-policy agenda was heavy on combating terrorism in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Mr. Obama is focusing on climate change, nonproliferation and development issues. Among other high-profile topics at the 64th session of the U.N. General Assembly: the world economy, education for girls, peacekeeping, curbing sexual violence and taming the U.N.’s insatiable appetite for paper.

Mr. Obama begins his visit with a summit Tuesday on climate change. It is part of a process leading to a December meeting in Copenhagen that aims to forge agreement between developed and developing nations on reducing carbon emissions.

The same day, Mr. Obama also will host a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in an effort to lay the groundwork for renewed negotiations on Middle East peace. The three-way meeting will take place immediately after Mr. Obama meets separately with each of the two leaders, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Saturday.

Also Tuesday, he hosts a lunch for leaders of sub-Saharan African countries. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan E. Rice told reporters in Washington on Friday that the president would focus on “job creation, especially for young people; creating a more conducive climate for trade and investment; and ways to mobilize African agriculture to create jobs and help feed the continent.”

On Wednesday, when the General Assembly formally convenes, Mr. Obama will speak third, after Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil. Mr. Obama will be followed by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who is also making his first appearance at the U.N.

Ms. Rice gave few details about Mr. Obama’s speech, saying only that the president would “talk about our mutual responsibilities to make progress on several key priorities that will advance our common security and prosperity.”

U.N. diplomats who used to listen to Mr. Bush with stiff politeness are more enthusiastic about his successor.

Even Mr. Ban, who was chosen secretary-general with the strong support of the Bush administration, spoke approvingly of Mr. Obama’s interest in climate issues compared with that of his predecessor.

“The very fact that President Obama is coming to address the General Assembly in this summit meeting for the first time as president of United States [is remarkable],” he said. “You have seen that former President Bush has not come to this [climate change] meeting, except by attending the private working dinner.”

“Therefore,” Mr. Ban added, “I expect and count on strong leadership and commitment of President Obama. That’s critically important.”

Many delegations, including those from Libya, Lebanon, France and the Palestinian Authority, said they were relieved that, as one diplomat put it, Mr. Bush’s “lecturing” tone would be replaced by Mr. Obama’s open-mindedness. The diplomat spoke on the condition of anonymity, a common practice at the U.N.

Damptey Asare, a counselor at Ghana’s U.N. mission, was happy to go on the record.

“I want to hear his speech. I think he is very supportive of the U.N. agenda,” he said. “We want to see strong American leadership here; America brings so much” to meetings and informal discussions. Mr. Obama “must hear our concerns.”

Mr. Asare said the president should focus on climate change and development in poor countries in his speech to the world body.

Others are looking to Mr. Obama to become more involved in other international bodies, such as the International Criminal Court (ICC). The Obama administration has already joined a U.N. Human Rights Council that had been shunned by the Bush administration as ineffective.

Ms. Rice said the U.S. “joined this troubled body fully aware of its many flaws, but we recognize that we can’t fix it or contribute to fixing it simply by carping from the outside.”

“They have signaled that they are interested in treaties again,” said a U.N. lawyer who has been on the job since 2001 when the Bush administration “unsigned” the convention creating the ICC as one of its first acts in office. He spoke on the condition that he not be named.

The Obama administration is also expected to resubmit to the Senate for ratification a treaty on a comprehensive ban on nuclear tests, though it is not clear it will pass.

“If the U.S. signs a treaty - even if we know it won’t get through your Senate - it will trigger other nations to join it,” said a U.N. nuclear proliferation expert who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to talk to the press.

During the two days of speeches from the green and gold General Assembly podium, the leaders don’t usually engage each other publicly. Nearly every one of the speakers reads from a script that has been prepared for days. However, there will be plenty of opportunity for world leaders to encounter Mr. Obama more casually at the endless rounds of diplomatic receptions, where tuxedoed waiters pass platters of caviar-spiked baby potatoes and other finger foods.

These private receptions, formal meals and grabbed moments on the sidelines of events are the bread and butter of the so-called General Assembly debate.

Besides his lunch for African leaders and one-on-one meetings with the leaders of China, Russia and Japan, Mr. Obama will host the annual U.S. reception for selected heads of state and meet with government chiefs from the top contributors to U.N. peacekeeping missions. On Thursday, he will chair a Security Council summit that is expected to reaffirm the goal of eventually eliminating nuclear weapons and promise no first use of nuclear arms against countries that do not possess them.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will conduct her own rounds, backstopping her boss and representing the administration in a formal meeting on the nuclear test ban treaty. Mrs. Clinton also will chair a Security Council session to augment efforts to curb the scourge of sexual violence in armed conflicts.

Wherever U.S. officials turn up this week, they can count on receiving a warm reception and genuine interest, even as the president’s approval ratings drag at home. A recent Zogby poll showed support for Mr. Obama has dropped to exactly 50 percent as the U.S. economy contracts and lawmakers fight with angry passion about a national health care plan. At the U.N., however, Mr. Obama will be the debutante everyone wants to dance with.

“I think he is vert smart,” said an Arab ambassador, talking not for attribution. “[President] Clinton-smart, not just book-smart.”

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