WASHINGTON (AP) – Serious challenges await President Barack Obama at the U.N. General Assembly this week after his recent successes on Iran and with Pope Francis.
Those burdens include the threat from Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, the Syrian civil war and the ensuing refugee crisis, and Russia’s moves in Ukraine and, more recently, in Syria.
Obama was set to arrive later Sunday for three days in New York, and perhaps the most anticipated moment was to come Monday evening – a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the annual gathering of world leaders.
It will be their first face-to-face meeting in nearly a year. Both leaders also were to address the assembly’s opening session on Monday.
The U.S. and Russia have quibbled over who requested the meeting and what the focus will be. Putin wants to talk about Syria; Obama wants to concentrate on Ukraine.
Despite administration efforts to turn Putin into an international pariah after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in March 2014, Obama believes not engaging with the Russian leader “would be wrong” given the pressing issues in Ukraine and Syria, Obama deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said.
Putin has begun a military buildup in ally Syria for reasons that U.S. officials have said remain unclear.
Obama is fresh off a successful White House meeting with Pope Francis. In remarks to throngs at an outdoor welcome ceremony last Wednesday, the pontiff voiced support for Obama policies on climate change, immigration and economic inequality – some of which have been blocked by Republican lawmakers.
Shortly before Francis arrived in Washington, Obama was able to achieve a major victory when opponents of the Iran nuclear deal failed to muster enough support for a congressional resolution disapproving of the agreement. That spared Obama having to make good on his threatened veto.
The U.S., Germany, Britain, China, Russia and France have agreed to lift economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear program. Republican lawmakers opposed the deal on grounds that it will not keep Iran from ever acquiring a nuclear weapon.
Despite progress on the Iran nuclear front, Obama remains challenged elsewhere in the Middle East.
A campaign against IS militants who have claimed broad sections of Iraq and Syria remains far from achieving Obama’s goal to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the group, despite more than a year of military airstrikes against IS targets by a U.S.-led coalition of more than 60 countries.
A separate U.S. effort to train thousands of moderate Syrian rebels to fight IS has turned out to be a costly failure, with fewer rebels than originally anticipated involved.
Obama’s first scheduled stop in New York was at a U.N. summit on steps to eradicate extreme poverty around the world. In the evening, the president planned to headline a Democratic Party LGBT fundraiser.
Besides Monday’s address to general assembly, Obama was to meet with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and lead a summit on international peacekeeping.
Obama likely will use the speech to argue the merits of diplomacy and engagement. Rhodes said diplomacy was most notably instrumental in the Iran deal and U.S. overtures to Cuba. Rhodes said diplomacy is also needed, sometimes “backed by teeth,” to reach a political resolution in Syria and Ukraine.
“The case the president will be making to the world is we need to remain invested in an international order that can solve problems and hold people accountable when they break the rules,” he said.
Obama will lead a summit on countering the Islamic State and violent extremism on Tuesday before returning to Washington.
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