Obama Vows Defense of U.S. Ideals in Arab Spring, Iran

President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama devoted most of his UN remarks to the challenges facing new governments ushered in by the Arab Spring, particularly recent attacks on American diplomatic outposts spurred by an anti-Islam video made in the U.S. Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

President Barack Obama, in a speech to world leaders six weeks before the U.S. election, said his handling of Iran’s nuclear program and extremism in emerging Arab democracies embodies American ideals.

Addressing the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York yesterday, Obama said the U.S. would do whatever it takes to keep Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, warning that time for diplomacy “is not unlimited.”

Obama devoted most of his UN remarks to the challenges facing new governments ushered in by the Arab Spring, particularly recent attacks on American diplomatic outposts spurred by an anti-Islam video made in the U.S. While calling the video “crude and disgusting” and emphasizing that the U.S. government had nothing to do with it, the president said such expression can’t be banned in a free society.

“Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views -- even views that we disagree with,” he said. “We do so not because we support hateful speech, but because our founders understood that without such protections, the capacity of each individual to express their own views, and practice their own faith, may be threatened.”

Obama warned that newly elected leaders in countries which were swept by the Arab Spring uprising are threatened by the same anger aimed at the U.S. He called the assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three colleagues an attack on America and vowed that the U.S. would be “relentless” in pursuing the killers.

Romney Speech

The violence in the region has opened a line of attack by Republican Mitt Romney on Obama’s foreign policy, particularly his handling of relations with Israel and the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear ambitions. In an address to the Clinton Global Initiative in New York before Obama spoke, Romney said the U.S. seems “at the mercy of events rather than shaping events.”

“Syria has witnessed the killing of tens of thousands of people,” Romney said. “The president of Egypt is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Our ambassador to Libya was assassinated in a terrorist attack. Iran is moving toward nuclear weapons capability.”

Three Republican senators accused Obama yesterday of sugar-coating the volatility in the region and failing to exert U.S. control over events.

“It is not a ‘bump in the road’ when American embassies, and those of our friends and allies, are attacked by hateful mobs who also murder their fellow citizens,” John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire said in a joint statement.

‘Insisted on Change’

During his UN speech, Obama said it had been less than two years since a Tunisian vendor began the Arab Spring by setting himself on fire to protest corruption. He said the U.S. had “recognized our own beliefs in the aspiration of men and women who took to the streets.”

“We insisted on change in Egypt, because our support for democracy ultimately put us on the side of the people,” the president said.

In a speech at the Clinton Global Initiative, an annual meeting organized by former Democratic President Bill Clinton, Obama emphasized U.S. efforts to curb human trafficking. He announced an executive order strengthening prohibitions against U.S. tax dollars supporting human trafficking through contracts and more investigations into such crimes in the U.S. and abroad.

Human trafficking “must be called by its true name, modern slavery,” Obama said, describing his message to the oppressed as: “We see you, we hear you, we insist on your dignity.”

‘No Mistake’

At the UN, Obama said that a nuclear-armed Iran would imperil Israel, ignite a regional arms race and destabilize the global economy.

“Make no mistake: A nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained,” he said.

Iran has been a flashpoint in U.S. foreign policy and the election campaign. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been pressuring the U.S. to set a clear threshold that would trigger a military strike.

Netanyahu and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak have said they may have no choice but to launch a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities if negotiations over the Islamic Republic’s atomic work fail. U.S. officials have said they believe Iran’s supreme leader hasn’t made a decision on whether to develop a nuclear weapon.

Iranian leaders have on numerous occasions called for the destruction of Israel, raising concerns about Iran’s intentions if it were to acquire a nuclear weapon.

‘Hollow Words’

Danny Danon, deputy speaker of the Knesset in Israel and a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, said in a statement from Jerusalem that it is time for “defined red lines” and not “hollow words.”

“While President Obama addressed the UN and presented his rose-colored vision for the Middle East, the centrifuges in Natanz, Kom and Fordow continue to spin,” Danon said of Iran’s nuclear program.

Since April, the Obama administration and France, the U.K., Germany, China and Russia have pursued three rounds of diplomacy in an effort to persuade Iran to abandon illicit aspects of its nuclear program. While the international community has stepped up the pressure on Iran by imposing dozens of financial and oil sanctions this year, the talks have so far failed to achieve a settlement.

World Leaders

Obama had no announced one-on-one meetings with world leaders during his time at the UN, a schedule that drew criticism from Republicans. Last year, he had more than a dozen private sessions with the leaders of Israel, the Palestinian Authority, France, the U.K. and other nations.

Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian-American Council, said that while Obama sharpened his tone against Iran in the UN address, “he does not shift the red line” to a nuclear-capable Iran from a nuclear-armed Iran.

“Obama is right in resisting the Netanyahu government’s pressure for the U.S. to adopt a red line that Israel itself has refused to draw,” Parsi said. “Acceptance of the Israeli red line would in essence mean that the U.S. should have gone to war with Iran several years ago.”

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