The Cable

Obama to World: Bad News. The American Empire Is Dead.

U.S. President Barack Obama presented world leaders at the United Nations with an image of America as a reluctant superpower, ready to confront Iran's nukes and kill its enemies with targeted drone strikes, but unprepared to embark on open-ended military missions in Syria and other troubled countries. That, he hinted, should give the world cause for anxiety.

"The United States has a hard-earned humility when it comes to our ability to determine events inside other countries," he said in his address before the 193-member General Assembly. "The notion of American empire may be useful propaganda, but it isn't borne out by America's current policy or public opinion."

Obama said that "the recent debate within the United States over Syria clearly showed the danger for the world is not an America that is eager to immerse itself in the affairs of other countries or take on every problem in the region as its own. The danger for the world is that the United States, after a decade of war -- rightly concerned about issues back home, aware of the hostility that our engagement in the region has engendered throughout the Muslim world -- may disengage, creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill."

Obama said that for the time being, American foreign-policy priorities in the Middle East will focus primarily on two key priorities: "Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons and the Arab-Israeli conflict. While these issues are not the cause of all the region's problems, they have been a major source of instability for far too long, and resolving them can help serve as a foundation for a broader peace."

In addressing the conflict in Syria, Obama said U.S. aims were largely humanitarian.

"There's no 'great game' to be won, nor does America have any interest in Syria beyond the well-being of its people, the stability of its neighbors, the elimination of chemical weapons, and ensuring it does not become a safe haven for terrorists," he said.

Obama affirmed his commitment to the U.S.-Russian plan to place the Assad regime's chemical weapons under international control, acknowledging that the Syrian president had taken a positive initial step by declaring his stockpiles.

"My preference has always been a diplomatic resolution to this issue," he said, stressing the importance of a Security Council resolution that will hold Assad to his commitments. "There must be consequences if they fail to do so," he said. "If we cannot agree even on this, then it will show that the U.N. is incapable of enforcing the most basic of international laws."

The president presented the U.S.-Russian plan as a catalyst for a broader international effort to bring the conflict to an end, but emphasized that America should not determine who will eventually lead in Syria. In keeping with his characteristically small-bore approach, he announced an additional $340 million in U.S. humanitarian assistance but shied away from any mention of toppling Bashar al-Assad.

The United States and Russia remain sharply divided over how to implement their chemical weapons agreement; the U.N. Security Council resolution endorsing the pact has been delayed several times. The United States insists that Syria face the threat of unspecified "consequences" if it fails to comply with its obligation to disarm, while Russia prefers a more consensual approach that includes no explicit or implicit threat of force.

Speaking before Obama, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the U.N. Security Council to hold the Syrian government to "fully and quickly honor[ing]" the obligations it has undertaken to destroy its chemical weapons, and he pleaded with the Security Council to move forward with an "enforceable" resolution ensuring that Syria complies.

But Ban added that removing unconventional arms can't be the international community's only goal in Syria. "We can hardly be satisfied with destroying chemical weapons while the wider war is still destroying Syria. The vast majority of the killing and atrocities have been carried out with conventional weapons," he said.

Ban urged Syria's combatants and their foreign backers to "stop fueling the bloodshed in Syria" and halt all arms shipments to the fighters. "Military victory is an illusion," he said. "The only answer is a political settlement." Ban also raised the possibility of sending U.N. human rights monitors to Syria, where they "could play a useful role in reporting and deterring further violations."

Obama, meanwhile, laid out a rather modest account of American "core interests" in the Middle East and North Africa: countering military aggression against U.S. partners in the region, protecting global energy reserves, and confronting the dual threats of terrorism and nuclear proliferation.

"The United States of America is prepared to use all elements of our power, including military force, to secure these core interests in the region," he said. "But I also believe that we can rarely achieve these objectives through unilateral American action -- particularly with military action. Iraq shows us that democracy cannot be imposed by force. Rather, these objectives are best achieved when we partner with the international community and with the countries and people of the region."

Accordingly, he defended the U.S. decision to work with Egypt's new military regime, which came to power through a July 3 military coup and launched a bloody crackdown on its political opposition. "Our approach to Egypt reflects a larger point: The United States will at times work with governments that do not meet the highest international expectations, but who work with us on our core interests," Obama said.

Obama added that he is willing to work even with America's traditional rivals, singling out Iran, to achieve his goals. Speaking several hours before Iranian President Hasan Rouhani was due to address the U.N. General Assembly, Obama offered assurances that "we are not seeking regime change, and we respect the right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy. Instead, we insist that the Iranian government meet its responsibilities under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and U.N. Security Council resolutions."

"We should be able to achieve a resolution that respects the rights of the Iranian people, while giving the world confidence that the Iranian program is peaceful. To succeed, conciliatory words will have to be matched by actions that are transparent and verifiable."

Earlier in the day, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff took to the U.N. podium to blast the massive electronic spying program that Obama has overseen in office. The surveillance, she claimed, constitutes a breach of international law and an affront to America's allies. Obama sought to assure leaders like her that he is listening. "We have begun to review the way that we gather intelligence, so as to properly balance the legitimate security concerns of our citizens and allies with the privacy concerns that all people share," Obama said. But he went on to defend the controversial eavesdropping effort, saying it was a just approach to combating terrorism by a superpower that is "shifting away from a perpetual war-footing."

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The Cable

Dilma Blasts U.S. Spies as International Crooks

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff delivered a sizzling rebuke of America's expansive electronic spying operation on Tuesday, telling a gathering of world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly that American eavesdropping constitutes "a breach of international law and an affront to" Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian president's broadside came as President Barack Obama prepared in the wings to deliver his fifth address as president to the U.N's most representative body. Rousseff, who is seeking re-election in Brazil, charged the United States with "indiscriminately" scooping up the personal data of Brazilian citizens and businesses and targeting the communications of Brasilia's government.

Last week, Rousseff snubbed the U.S. president when she indefinitely postponed a state visit to the White House over revelations that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) had aggressively targeted Brazil as part of its intelligence-gathering practices. Her visit to Washington, scheduled for late October, was supposed to be a celebration of deepening cooperation between the Western Hemisphere's two largest economies.

"Given the proximity of the scheduled state visit to Washington and in the absence of a timely investigation" into the NSA snooping allegations, her office said in a statement, "there aren't conditions for this trip to be made."

The alleged U.S. spying program in Latin America first came to light because of documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and was reported by the local Brazilian press in collaboration with Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian reporter who was among the first to break the NSA snooping story.

In addition to scooping up the private telephone calls, emails, and other communications between top Brazilian officials, the NSA allegedly targeted the country's largest oil company, Petrobras, through a program called Blackpearl. If proven, the Brazilian government has charged, the allegations would amount to economic espionage -- something American spies have long insisted that they never do.

"If the facts reported by the press are confirmed, it will be evident that the motive for the spying attempts is not security or the war on terrorism but strategic economic interests," Rousseff said in a statement last month. The NSA has denied that it engages in economic espionage "in any domain, including cyber."

Rousseff has since called for new regulations that would require foreign-based technology companies like Google and Facebook to set up data centers inside Brazil that are subject to local laws. It's a plan that would come at substantial economic cost to the tech companies -- and might actually make it more likely that their customers will be targeted by surveillance operations.

On Tuesday, the Brazilian president told the General Assembly that America's spying operation posed a threat to democracy throughout the world, and she proposed U.N. regulation of cyberspace to ensure the integrity of the Internet. "Without the right of privacy there is no real freedom of speech or freedom of opinion, and so there is no actual democracy," she said. And "without respect for [a nation's] sovereignty, there is no basis for proper relations among nations."

Rousseff said that her government has filed a formal protest against the United States, demanding an apology and a "guarantee that such acts will not be repeated.… Those who want a strategic partnership cannot possibly allow recurring and illegal action to go on as if they were an ordinary practice." Rousseff dismissed Washington's contention that the United States needed to monitor electronic communications as part of its global campaign to fight terrorism as "untenable. Brazil knows how to protect itself. Brazil … does not provide shelter to terrorist groups; we are democratic country."