UNITED NATIONS — President Barack Obama on Tuesday laid down a retooled blueprint for America's role in the strife-torn Middle East, declaring that the United States would use all of its levers of power, including military force, to defend its interests, even as it accepted limits about its ability to influence events in Syria, Iran and other countries.
In a wide-ranging speech to the General Assembly that played off rapid-fire diplomatic developments but also sought to define what he called a "hard-earned humility" about U.S. engagement after 12 years of war, Obama insisted that the United States still played an "exceptional" role on the world stage. Turning inward "would create a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill," he said.
Obama embraced a diplomatic opening to Iran, saying he had instructed Secretary of State John Kerry to begin high-level negotiations on its nuclear program. He called on the Security Council to pass a resolution that would impose consequences on Syria if it failed to turn over its chemicals weapons. And he delivered a pitch for peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, talks that have restarted at the prodding of Kerry.
Hours later, Iran's newly elected president, Hasan Rouhani, echoed the call for diplomacy, telling the General Assembly that "we can arrive at a framework to manage our differences." But Rouhani said Iran would insist on its right to enrich uranium, and he warned Obama to resist influence from "warmongering pressure groups."
Rouhani, who had mounted an aggressive charm offensive in the weeks before arriving in New York, declined a chance to shake hands with Obama — avoiding a much-anticipated encounter that would have bridged more than three decades of estrangement between the leaders of Iran and the United States.
While in their speeches, both leaders balanced their ideals as statesmen with their imperatives as politicians, for Rouhani, a handshake may have proved too provocative for hard-line constituencies back home.
At the end of a day of drama and dashed expectations at the United Nations, the spotlight swung back to the grinding work of diplomacy that awaits Iran and the United States.
In the morning, it was a somewhat diminished U.S. leader who faced a skeptical audience of world leaders here. After first threatening, then backing off a military strike against Syria, and now suddenly confronting a diplomatic opening with Iran, Obama has employed a foreign policy that has at times seemed improvisational and, in view of many critics, irresolute.
The president acknowledged as much, saying his zigzag course on military strikes had unnerved some allies and vindicated the cynicism of many in the Middle East about U.S. motives in the region. But he said the bigger threat would be if America withdrew altogether.
"The danger for the world is that the United States, after a decade of war, rightly concerned about issues back home, and aware of the hostility that our engagement in the region has engendered throughout the Muslim World, may disengage," Obama said. "I believe that would be a mistake."
Despite a war-weary public and its declining reliance on Middle Eastern oil, the United States would continue to be an active player in the region, Obama insisted, defending its interests; advocating for democratic principles; working to resolve sectarian conflicts in countries like Iraq, Syria and Bahrain; and if necessary, intervening militarily with others countries to head off humanitarian tragedies.
"We will be engaged in the region for the long haul," Obama said. "For the hard work of forging freedom and democracy is the task of a generation."
For a president who has sought to refocus U.S. foreign policy on Asia, it was a significant concession that the Middle East is likely to remain a major preoccupation for the rest of his term, if not that of his successor.
Much of Obama's focus was on the sudden, even disorienting flurry of diplomatic developments that began after he pulled back from the brink of ordering a strike on Syria last month. He said Iran's overtures could provide a foundation for an agreement on its nuclear program, but he warned that "conciliatory words will have to be matched by actions that are transparent and verifiable."
Referring to the moderate statements of Rouhani, and an exchange of letters with him, Obama sounded a cautiously optimistic tone about diplomacy. "The roadblocks may prove to be too great," he added, "but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested."
The president spoke immediately after Brazil's president, Dilma Rousseff, delivered a blistering denunciation of the United States over reports that the National Security Agency monitored emails, text messages and other electronic communications between Rousseff and her aides. Last week, Rousseff canceled a state visit to Washington.
Obama took note of these grievances, saying that the United States was rethinking its surveillance activities as part of a broader recalculation that included restricting the use of drones, transferring prisoners out of the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and ultimately shutting it down. His words echoed a speech he delivered last spring on the need for the United States to get off "perpetual war footing."