At U.N., Obama condemns anti-U.S. protests, calls for patience
UNITED NATIONS -- During an appearance at the United Nations on Tuesday, President Obama condemned the deadly anti-American protests that tore across the Middle East and North Africa and asked for patience during a "season of progress," as he sought to defend his strategy for supporting fledgling democracies across the Arab world.
Speaking before a meeting of the General Assembly, Obama asked world leaders to reject intolerance and violence and to resist the temptation to crack down on dissidents. He touted his support for the shift to democracies in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt and decried government violence against the people of Syria.
"We have taken these positions because we believe that freedom and self-determination are not unique to one culture," Obama said. "These are not simply American values or Western values -- they are universal values. And even as there will be huge challenges that come with a transition to democracy, I am convinced that ultimately government of the people, by the people and for the people is more likely to bring about the stability, prosperity and individual opportunity that serve as a basis for peace in our world."
"True democracy -- real freedom -- is hard work," Obama said.
The protests and riots that rattled cities across the Arab world two weeks ago over an anti-Islam movie produced in California have put the president unexpectedly on his heels, defending his foreign policy six weeks before election day. His annual trip to the U.N. was aimed at providing reassurance to the world on the progress of the "Arab Spring" while also deflecting attacks from a Republican election opponent who has sought to portray the president's policies in the region as weak and confused.
Obama was slated to address the group later in the day.
Though the White House insisted the speech to the General Assembly was not political, the trip has had the pace and focus of a typical campaign blitz through a swing state. In a 24-hour span, Obama attended a private reception and was slated to deliver two speeches before heading back to Washington at day's end. He is to return to the campaign trail on Wednesday.
In a sharp departure from past years, Obama had no bilateral meetings scheduled with foreign leaders, most notably Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had sought a meeting this month as he stepped up pressure on the Obama administration to take a harder line against Iran's nuclear program.
In his speech before the General Assembly, Obama offered some tough words for the Tehran regime but did not shift away from his position that there remains time for diplomacy to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
"But that time is not unlimited," Obama said. "Make no mistake: a nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained. It would threaten the elimination of Israel, the security of [Persian] Gulf nations and the stability of the global economy. It risks triggering a nuclear arms race in the region and the unraveling of the nonproliferation treaty. That is why a coalition of countries is holding the Iranian government accountable. And that is why the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon."
Obama called for a "different vision" in Syria, where a savage civil war rages and the peace process is in tatters. Obama sought to lend conditional support to forces fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad's rule, urging them to embrace an inclusive democracy and suggesting that U.S. support would follow.
"That is what America stands for; that is the outcome that we will work for -- with sanctions and consequences for those who persecute, and assistance and support for those who work for this common good. Because we believe that the Syrians who embrace this vision will have the strength and legitimacy to lead," he said.
The spate of protests and eruptions of violence in fledgling democracies have put a new focus on success for the president's Arab Spring strategy. The death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, during the Sept. 11 attack on the consulate in Benghazi -- an assault that U.S. officials say may have been carried out by Al Qaeda affiliates -- threatens to undermine Obama's campaign claims about progress defeating terrorists. Meanwhile, the continued turmoil in Syria has no clear end.
In his defense of American foreign policy, Obama offered a eulogy of Stevens, describing him as a man who loved and respected the people of the region and worked to help them confront dictatorship and build a new society in its wake.
Stevens' death was not merely an assault on America, Obama said, but an attack on the very ideals on which the United Nations was founded.
He decried the anti-Islam video that inspired outrage and violence in the Middle East, but also offered a spirited defense of the concept of free speech and urged others to embrace it.
"There are no words that excuse the killing of innocents. There is no video that justifies an attack on an embassy," the president said. "There is no slander that provides an excuse for people to burn a restaurant in Lebanon, or destroy a school in Tunis, or cause death and destruction in Pakistan."
The right to free speech means that people speak ill of him every day in the U.S., but "I will always defend their right to do so," Obama said, arguing that repression of free speech "can quickly become a tool to silence critics and oppress minorities."
Some diplomats at this week’s gathering are unhappy with the fly-by treatment they believe Obama is giving the proceedings. In the cavernous assembly hall, Obama received a subdued response to much of his address.
But people laughed at his line about defending the right of opponents to criticize him and applauded when he declared that the future should be written by the hopeful people of the world and not those who would oppress that hope.
"I remain ever hopeful about the world we live in," he said, about the "common heartbeat to humanity" and the shared longing for freedom.
"A rising tide of liberty will never be reversed," he said.
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-- Kathleen Hennessey
Photo: President Obama speaks at the U.N. General Assembly meeting on Tuesday in New York. Credit: John Moore / Getty Images