With the United Nations as a backdrop, President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney engaged in a de facto debate on foreign policy Tuesday, with Obama defending his record in the turbulent Middle East and Romney vowing to act more decisively in the interests of the U.S. and its allies, particularly Israel.
The two men staked out their positions crosstown in New York, with Obama speaking at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly, and both appearing at different times before a forum hosted nearby by former President Bill Clinton. The back and forth on international affairs came amid a campaign that until recently had focused entirely on the U.S. economy and domestic issues, but that’s taken on a new urgency with the deaths of U.S. diplomats in Libya and anti-American demonstrations in Egypt and elsewhere.
Obama urged the General Assembly to exercise patience for what he called a “season of progress” as oppressed populations in the Arab world oust long-established dictatorships. He boasted of his administration’s support for revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya, and he called for an end to the bloodshed in Syria and the departure of President Bashar Assad.
“We have taken these positions because we believe that freedom and self-determination are not unique to one culture,” he told the hall. “These are not simply American values or Western values; they are universal values. And even as there will be huge challenges to 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.”
He didn’t mention Bahrain, where he stood by when anti-government demonstrations were stopped by force. He also said little when anti-government protests were put down in Iran before last year’s Arab Spring.
His remarks came two weeks after the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans died in an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and anti-American protests broke out in Egypt and across the region.
Several blocks from the gathering of world leaders, Romney appeared at a meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative to paint Obama as feckless in foreign policy, leaving the appearance that the U.S. is behind the curve of events. “We feel that we are at the mercy of events, rather than shaping events,” he said.
He argued that “religious extremism” was part of the problem in the Arab world, but “not the whole story.” He accused the president of projecting an image of weakness that emboldens U.S. enemies.
Noting that Iran is “moving toward nuclear weapons capability,” he said Obama had been insufficiently protective of Israel.
Romney also unveiled a proposed redesign of U.S. foreign aid to “access the transformative nature of free enterprise,” part of his latest effort to build a more muscular foreign policy while emphasizing economic programs.
His new approach to foreign assistance would require aid to meet three tests: Address humanitarian needs, foster “a substantial United States strategic interest, be it military, diplomatic or economic,” and bring about “lasting change in communities and in nations.” The Prosperity Pact program would try to link trade policy with development policy, according to his campaign. “Working with the private sector,” the campaign said, “the program would identify the barriers to investment, trade and entrepreneurialism in developing nations."
Obama spent much of his speech condemning the protests in the Middle East and a video produced in the United States that mocks the Prophet Muhammad, which sparked the anti-American demonstrations.
“Its message must be rejected by all who respect our common humanity,” he said of the video, adding, “There’s no video that justifies an attack on an embassy.” He called on governments in the region to condemn such action, calling it “the obligation of all leaders, in all countries, to speak out forcefully against violence and extremism.”
He also spent considerable time explaining to critics of the U.S. why the government can’t ban such content, offering a defense of free speech. He explained that American law and the U.S. Constitution protect the right to free speech.
Obama didn’t set a “red line” on moving against Iran’s nuclear program, but said anew that the U.S. would “do what we must” to prevent the regime from obtaining a nuclear weapon. He said the U.S. wanted to resolve the issue "through diplomacy" and that he thought "there is still time and space to do so.”
Aides said the president had paid a “courtesy call" to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the president of the U.N. General Assembly, Vuk Jeremic. Obama also stopped by a meeting that an aide was having with President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi of Yemen to "thank him for the steps he’s taken to secure our embassy and our diplomats in that country,” according to White House spokesman Ben Rhodes.
Obama had been criticized for refusing to meet one on one with any world leaders during the U.N. trip, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He did make time to tape an appearance on ABC-TV’s “The View,” delivering a gift basket to co-host Barbara Walters.
The two major-party candidates will debate foreign policy in person Oct. 22 at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla. It’s unclear whether the sparring over the issue will move voters, who polls suggest are far more focused on the economy.