NEW YORK — President Obama pledged continued U.S. involvement in theturbulent Middle East at the United Nations Tuesday and vowed that theU.S. will do "what we must" to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclearweapon.
Obama opened his remarks to the United Nations General Assembly byrecalling the life of U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens,who was slain in an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
He said the recent attacks in the Middle East were not only againstAmerica.
“They are also an assault on the very ideals upon which the UnitedNations was founded - the notion that people can resolve theirdifferences peacefully; that diplomacy can take the place of war; andthat in an interdependent world, all of us have a stake in workingtowards greater opportunity and security for our citizens.”
Under pressure from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to takea tougher stand against Iran, Obama delivered no “red line” that Iranmust not cross.
He insisted the U.S. wants to resolve the issue "through diplomacy"and believes "there is still time and space to do so.”
But he said the window for diplomacy is “not unlimited," warning thata “nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained. Itwould threaten the elimination of Israel, the security of Gulfnations, and the stability of the global economy. It risks triggeringa nuclear-arms race in the region, and the unraveling of thenon-proliferation treaty.”
Before Obama spoke, UN Secretary Ban ki Moon warned that the civil warin Syria was a “serious and growing threat” to the world, and calledon the international community and governments in the region to bringan end to the violence.
Obama said the regime “of Bashar al-Assad must come to an end so thatthe suffering of the Syrian people can stop, and a new dawn canbegin.”
And he called for patience in the Middle East, saying the “turmoil ofrecent weeks reminds us that the path to democracy does not end withthe casting of a ballot.”
He added, “true democracy demands that citizens cannot be thrown injail because of what they believe, and businesses can be openedwithout paying a bribe. It depends on the freedom of citizens to speaktheir minds and assemble without fear; on the rule of law and dueprocess that guarantees the rights of all people.
He again decried what he called a “crude and disgusting” anti-Islamicvideo that the administration at first blamed solely for the attack onthe consulate in Libya as well as anti-U.S. demonstrations across theregion. He said the video’s “message must be rejected by all whorespect our common humanity. It is an insult not only to Muslims, butto America as well – for as the city outside these walls makes clear,we are a country that has welcomed people of every race and religion.”
He distanced the U.S. government from the creation of the video andsought to answer critics in the Middle East who have pressed the U.S.to ban such videos. He explained U.S. law and the U.S. constitutionprotects the right to free speech.
There was little reaction from the hushed hall during his remarks, butObama prompted laughter when he noted that “as president of ourcountry, and Commander-in-Chief of our military, I accept that peopleare going to call me awful things every day, and I will always defendtheir right to do so.”
And he argued that today’s technology makes “obsolete” the notion thatfree speech can be contained.
Yet he said there was “no video that justifies an attack on anEmbassy” and argued that the violence won’t. There is no slander thatprovides an excuse for people to burn a restaurant in Lebanon, ordestroy a school in Tunis, or cause death and destruction inPakistan."
He pressed his fellow world leaders to “speak out forcefully againstviolence and extremism. It is time to marginalize those who – evenwhen not resorting to violence – use hatred of America, or the West,or Israel as a central principle of politics. For that only givescover, and sometimes makes excuses, for those who resort to violence.”
Obama’s speech comes as his Republican challenger has seized on theunrest in the Middle East to step up attacks on Obama’s foreignpolicy, accusing him of making the world less safe and on this trip,of putting politics ahead of diplomacy.
Obama didn’t meet with a single world leader during his brief trip butdid make time to tape an appearance on ABC-TV’s The View. Romney’scampaign sent reporters a roundup of newspaper headlines that notedthe lack of meetings, along with his TV appearance, where he delivereda birthday basket to co-host Barbara Walters and joked aboutcelebrating his upcoming 20th wedding anniversary.
Speaking across town at former President Bill Clinton’s GlobalInitiative, Romney was to pledge to make U.S. aid more effective.
Obama was to address Clinton’s forum later today. He was returning toWashington by mid-afternoon – and planned to be back out on thecampaign trail Wednesday, stumping in Ohio where Romney has beencampaigning.
At his address, Romney was to propose linking foreign assistance withtrade policy, saying the current aid system is unrealistic and stiflesprivate enterprise.
He said U.S. assistance is “not responsive to the demands of themodern, global economy and reflects an outdated way of thinking aboutthe world."
The initiative is the latest Romney effort to propose a more muscularforeign policy while emphasizing economic programs at the same time.Romney’s fellow Republicans ripped into Obama’s record, seeingopportunity to raise questions about Obama’s handling of foreignpolicy – which has been a positive for the president who frequentlyboasts of the death of Osama bin Laden, as well as the end of the warsin Iraq and Afghanistan.
Republicans continued to criticize Obama for saying in a 60 Minutesinterview that the attacks in Libya reflect “bumps in the road” in theMiddle East, with Republican National Committee chairman ReincePriebus saying they underscore “serious national security crises thatreflect his weak leadership.”
The committee released a web video accusing the administration of a"crisis of leadership."
Republicans seized on the turmoil in the Middle East to paint Obama asdetached from world events, saying the White House offered“inconsistent information" about the attacks in Libya that killed fourAmericans and "offered no defense" for security levels at itsembassies and consulates.
“"President Obama promised that he would restore America's moralstanding in the world. Yet, for the last four years, instead ofstanding up for America's interests and values, this president has ledfrom behind," RNC Chairman Priebus said.