President Obama stood before the United Nations General Assembly this morning not just as a world leader taking his turn at the dais, but as a pre-emptive Nobel Peace Prize recipient now being judged for how his term has lived up to the title.
The death toll in Syria has only climbed as Bashar Assad wages a bloody crackdown on his people, and U.S. leadership has been largely absent save condemning the regime. The U.S. participated in the NATO coalition to assist Libyan rebels with airstrikes, but France and Britain largely led the effort. Relations with Israel, America’s strongest ally in the Middle East, are rocky at a critical juncture. The Russia “reset” has failed as the Kremlin plows ahead with its authoritarian backslide. And in the post-Arab Spring landscape, the tone of the White House has been marked by appeasement in an effort to keep the peace as Islamists battle with those fighting for democracy.
The fire from Obama’s 2009 Cairo address to the Muslim world seems to have fizzled in the face of global events that dampened his message of hope and understanding. The U.S. suffered another 9/11 terrorist attack and the White House is under fire for quickly pinning the blame on an amateur film offending Muslims rather than a coordinated terror attack.
Still, Obama said, “Because of the progress I’ve witnessed that after nearly four years as president, I am hopeful about the world we live in.”
Even as he has centered his foreign policy on a “Global Zero” push to eliminate nuclear weapons, the onerous presence of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the week’s activities weighed as a heavy reminder that Iran is ever-closer to reaching its nuclear ambitions, sanctions be damned.
“Let me be clear: America wants to resolve this issue through diplomacy, and we believe that there is still time and space to do so. But that time is not unlimited,” Obama said. “…And that is why the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
Had the 9/11 Benghazi attack not been looming over the day, the speech may have largely been a campaign stump touting the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, and the contested 2014 end date to U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Obama touched on all of these near the end of his address.
But the turn of events two weeks ago turned Obama’s address into a rallying cry for international free speech.
Obama began his speech by telling about the life of Ambassador Chris Stevens, one of the four Americans killed in the Benghazi attack.
“The attacks on our civilians in Benghazi were attacks on America. We are grateful for the assistance we received from the Libyan government and the Libyan people. And there should be no doubt that we will be relentless in tracking down the killers and bringing them to justice. I also appreciate that in recent days, the leaders of other countries in the region – including Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen – have taken steps to secure our diplomatic facilities, and called for calm. So have religious authorities around the globe,” Obama said.
“But the attacks of the last two weeks are not simply an assault on America. They are also an assault on the very ideals upon which the United Nations was founded. …If we are serious about upholding these ideals, it will not be enough to put more guards in front of an Embassy; or to put out statements of regret, and wait for the outrage to pass. If we are serious about those ideals, we must speak honestly about the deeper causes of this crisis. Because we face a choice between the forces that would drive us apart, and the hopes we hold in common.”
Obama told the assembly that “true democracy – real freedom – is hard work.”
“In every country, there are those who find different religious beliefs threatening; in every culture, those who love freedom for themselves must ask how much they are willing to tolerate freedom for others,” he said. “That is what we saw play out the last two weeks, as a crude and disgusting video sparked outrage throughout the Muslim world. I have made it clear that the United States government had nothing to do with this video, and I believe its 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.”
The president spent a substantial portion of his speech on the issue of religious slander, noting that there are countries in the world body that disagree whether it falls under protected free speech.
“Yet in 2012, at a time when anyone with a cell phone can spread offensive views around the world with the click of a button, the notion that we can control the flow of information is obsolete,” Obama said. “The question, then, is how we respond. And on this we must agree: there is no speech that justifies mindless violence.”
He said the U.S. recognizes that the violent responses don’t represent the majority of Muslims “any more than the views of the people who produced this video represent those of Americans.”
“That brand of politics – one that pits East against West; South against North; Muslim against Christian, Hindu, and Jew – cannot deliver the promise of freedom. To the youth, it offers only false hope. Burning an American flag will do nothing to educate a child. Smashing apart a restaurant will not fill an empty stomach,” Obama said. “Attacking an Embassy won’t create a single job. That brand of politics only makes it harder to achieve what we must do together: educating our children and creating the opportunities they deserve; protecting human rights, and extending democracy’s promise.”
“Understand that America will never retreat from the world,” Obama said. “We will bring justice to those who harm our citizens and our friends.”
The president said it’s important to remember that “Muslims have suffered the most at the hands of extremism.”
“On the same day our civilians were killed in Benghazi, a Turkish police officer was murdered in Istanbul only days before his wedding; more than ten Yemenis were killed in a car bomb in Sana’a; and several Afghan children were mourned by their parents just days after they were killed by a suicide bomber in Kabul,” he said. “The impulse towards intolerance and violence may initially be focused on the West, but over time it cannot be contained.”
“The future must not belong to those who target Coptic Christians in Egypt – it must be claimed by those in Tahrir Square who chanted ‘Muslims, Christians, we are one.’ The future must not belong to those who bully women – it must be shaped by girls who go to school, and those who stand for a world where our daughters can live their dreams just like our sons.”
“The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam,” Obama continued. “Yet to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see when the image of Jesus Christ is desecrated, churches are destroyed, or the Holocaust is denied. Let us condemn incitement against Sufi Muslims, and Shiite pilgrims.”
Though not to the degree of his trash-talking Iranian counterpart, Obama stoked controversy before even setting foot at Turtle Bay.
The president was the second speech opening the United Nations General Assembly, following Brazilian President Dilma Rosseff, and has drawn fire for sitting down with the ladies of The View yesterday but not scheduling any bilateral face-to-face sit-downs with world leaders.
“Any bilats added to the president’s schedule in New York?” one reporter prodded at Monday’s daily White House briefing.
“The president looks forward very much to participating at the United Nations General Assembly,” responded press secretary Jay Carney, who previewed Obama’s remarks as “a real opportunity.”
Carney promised that the president would also address “the most recent unrest, the fact that the United States government condemns and finds reprehensible the content of the video, the anti- Muslim video, but that the United States government was not responsible for it and it is absolutely our position that there is never justification for the kinds of violence, for any violence in response to a video.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton carried the heavy load at the UNGA, with a packed schedule of bilateral meetings including Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said Monday that Obama should use his speech to make clear to leaders and citizens of the Arab Spring countries “that they are facing a moment of truth.”
“If they want America’s friendship and support in advancing the shared strategic goals of security and prosperity, they will need to act responsibly and speak consistently – in English and Arabic – about the true impediments to a better future,” Rubio said, referencing the mixed messages — literally — tweeted by the Egyptian government in different languages.
“We need real leadership from the president on these issues, and he’s not providing it. He’s absent or stalling from the situations in Iran and Syria, doing his best to downplay the threats to U.S interests across the Middle East, hiding from our allies, and silent on the recently deteriorating situation in Afghanistan,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said this morning.
“When it comes to foreign policy, the president seems to be waiting out till the election,” Portman added. “Unfortunately, the problems of the world don’t wait and almost four years of taking a backseat to many of these situations is catching up with us, as we’ve seen.”