NEW YORK — President Obama pledged continued U.S. involvement in the turbulent Middle East at the United Nations Tuesday and vowed that the U.S. will do "what we must" to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Obama opened his remarks to the United Nations General Assembly by recalling 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 against America.
“They are also an assault on the very ideals upon which the United Nations was founded - the notion that people can resolve their differences peacefully; that diplomacy can take the place of war; and that in an interdependent world, all of us have a stake in working towards greater opportunity and security for our citizens.”
Under pressure from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to take a tougher stand against Iran, Obama delivered no “red line” that Iran must 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 that a “nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained. It would threaten the elimination of Israel, the security of Gulf nations, and the stability of the global economy. It risks triggering a nuclear-arms race in the region, and the unraveling of the non-proliferation treaty.”
Before Obama spoke, UN Secretary Ban ki Moon warned that the civil war in Syria was a “serious and growing threat” to the world, and called on the international community and governments in the region to bring an end to the violence.
Obama said the regime “of Bashar al-Assad must come to an end so that the suffering of the Syrian people can stop, and a new dawn can begin.”
And he called for patience in the Middle East, saying the “turmoil of recent weeks reminds us that the path to democracy does not end with the casting of a ballot.”
He added, “true democracy demands that citizens cannot be thrown in jail because of what they believe, and businesses can be opened without paying a bribe. It depends on the freedom of citizens to speak their minds and assemble without fear; on the rule of law and due process that guarantees the rights of all people.
He again decried what he called a “crude and disgusting” anti-Islamic video that the administration at first blamed solely for the attack on the consulate in Libya as well as anti-U.S. demonstrations across the region. He said the video’s “message must be rejected by all who respect our common humanity. It is an insult not only to Muslims, but to 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 and sought 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. constitution protects the right to free speech.
There was little reaction from the hushed hall during his remarks, but Obama prompted laughter when he noted that “as president of our country, and Commander-in-Chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day, and I will always defend their right to do so.”
And he argued that today’s technology makes “obsolete” the notion that free speech can be contained.
Yet he said there was “no video that justifies an attack on an Embassy” and argued that the violence won’t. 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."
He pressed his fellow world leaders to “speak out forcefully against violence and extremism. It is time to marginalize those who – even when not resorting to violence – use hatred of America, or the West, or Israel as a central principle of politics. For that only gives cover, and sometimes makes excuses, for those who resort to violence.”
Obama’s speech comes as his Republican challenger has seized on the unrest in the Middle East to step up attacks on Obama’s foreign policy, 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 but did make time to tape an appearance on ABC-TV’s The View. Romney’s campaign sent reporters a roundup of newspaper headlines that noted the lack of meetings, along with his TV appearance, where he delivered a birthday basket to co-host Barbara Walters and joked about celebrating his upcoming 20th wedding anniversary.
Speaking across town at former President Bill Clinton’s Global Initiative, Romney was to pledge to make U.S. aid more effective.
Obama was to address Clinton’s forum later today. He was returning to Washington by mid-afternoon – and planned to be back out on the campaign trail Wednesday, stumping in Ohio where Romney has been campaigning.
At his address, Romney was to propose linking foreign assistance with trade policy, saying the current aid system is unrealistic and stifles private enterprise.
He said U.S. assistance is “not responsive to the demands of the modern, global economy and reflects an outdated way of thinking about the world."
The initiative is the latest Romney effort to propose a more muscular foreign policy while emphasizing economic programs at the same time. Romney’s fellow Republicans ripped into Obama’s record, seeing opportunity to raise questions about Obama’s handling of foreign policy – which has been a positive for the president who frequently boasts of the death of Osama bin Laden, as well as the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Republicans continued to criticize Obama for saying in a 60 Minutes interview that the attacks in Libya reflect “bumps in the road” in the Middle East, with Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus saying they underscore “serious national security crises that reflect 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 as detached from world events, saying the White House offered “inconsistent information" about the attacks in Libya that killed four Americans and "offered no defense" for security levels at its embassies and consulates.
“"President Obama promised that he would restore America's moral standing in the world. Yet, for the last four years, instead of standing up for America's interests and values, this president has led from behind," RNC Chairman Priebus said.