The United Nations General Assembly convenes here in New York just as a set of disturbing developments have emerged in the Middle East. Will these reverse some of the hopeful trends we have seen in the region over the past two years?
Jeremy Bowen, Middle East editor for the BBC and author of "The Arab Uprisings," says it's disappointing that the United Nations seems so impotent when it comes to huge problems like Syria. "It's sad, I think, after relative optimism in recent years at times about what the U.N. can do, to see it going back to almost like the time of the Cold War, when it got paralyzed."
Part of the problem, Bowen acknowledges, is that the U.N. is only as strong as the will of its members. Given the events of the last two weeks in the Middle East, some countries might be hesitant to intervene in Syria, for fear that the situation could become worse. In the United States, for example, there is a feeling that we helped Libya get their freedom, and this violence is our thanks. But in Libya, the vast majority of people do not see it that way. "They don't think that the West, or the United States, gave them their freedom," Bowen says."They think they took their own freedom, and their freedom is something they want to do with as they like."
Furthermore, Bowen thinks that many Western countries were unrealistic to expect the problems of these nations to be resolved overnight by the Arab Spring. "People were always mistaken if they thought that the fall of the Arab dictators would turn these places overnight into Sweden," he says.
He also makes the point that, now that these countries are democracies, their leaders must listen to their constituencies. All too often, as in Egypt, this means bending toward anti-American sentiments. "We in the West have a bit of a credibility problem in the Middle East," Bowen says. "And that is because, for many, many years, we sustained the dictators. They were very useful friends for us."
In the wake of the violence sparked by the now infamous video insulting Islam, Bowen thinks an international convention on blasphemy would be an excellent use of the United Nations. But, as he points out, the U.N. has struggled for years to come to an agreement on how to define "terrorism," so such an amorphous term as blasphemy would presumably pose an even greater struggle. In the meantime, the disaster in Syria looms much larger than the fallout from the film in Libya, Egypt, and even Pakistan.