President Obama challenged the Arab world to use its newfound embrace of democracy to ensure protection for freedom of religion and speech and even life, using the last address of his first term to the General Assembly on Tuesday to call for a renewed focus on the “painstaking work of reform.”
Mr. Obama took on a number of issues at play between America and the Muslim world, vowing that the “United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon” and warning that time to diplomatically resolve the Iranian nuclear issue “is not unlimited.”
But he refused to go further than what he has said in the past, that “a nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained,” despite pleas from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel to establish a new red line.
“America wants to resolve this issue through diplomacy, and we believe there is still time and space to do so,” Mr. Obama said. “We respect the right of nations to access peaceful nuclear power, but one of the purposes of the United Nations is to see that we harness that power for peace.”
But he spent most of his 30-minute speech on the Arab democracy movement and its fallout.
Just two weeks after the beginning of violent anti-American protests that led to the killing of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, Mr. Obama vowed that even as the United States works to bring the killers to justice, he will not back down from his support of democratic freedoms in the Muslim world. But he also gave a spirited defense of American freedom of speech and the spirit of tolerance that allowed the inflammatory anti-Muslim video that prompted the protests.
“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,” Mr. Obama said. “And I will defend their right to do so.” For that, he received cheers in the cavernous hall.
While condemning the “crude and disgusting” video that prompted the protests in Libya and throughout the Muslim world, the president worked to explain — before a sometimes skeptical audience that has never completely bought into the American idea that even hateful speech is protected — why the United States values so highly its First Amendment.
“We do so because in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can become a tool to silence critics, or oppress minorities,” Mr. Obama said. “We do so because given the power of faith in our lives, and the passion that religious differences can inflame, the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech — the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.”
Americans, he said, “have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their view.”
And he said pointedly that “there is no speech that justifies mindless violence.”
“There are no words that excuse the killing of innocents,” Mr. Obama said. “There is no video that justifies an attack on an embassy. 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.”
It was the president’s first truly expansive response to the anti-American protests that erupted over the American-made video, and it came at a politically fraught time, just as his campaign is battling attacks from his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, that Mr. Obama has projected weakness abroad, a charge the Obama campaign has vociferously disputed.
Traffic-clogged New York was the scene on Tuesday of dueling speeches from Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney.
Mr. Romney spoke first at the Clinton Global Initiative about development — and managed a smile when former President Bill Clinton, a recent Obama surrogate, jogged onto the stage after his remarks to thank him. Mr. Obama is scheduled to speak before the group early this afternoon.
Mr. Obama’s appearance at the storied world body came with all the trappings of his incumbent presidency. He appeared before fellow global leaders in the high-ceilinged chambers of the General Assembly, and he took 30 minutes to make the case for America on the world stage.
It was a stage that seemed to beg for a natural orator — perhaps one of the president’s best gifts — and he did not disappoint. After the ritual of waiting for 10 seconds in a chair just below the stage while he was introduced, Mr. Obama walked to the podium.
“I would like to begin today by telling you about an American named Chris Stevens,” he said, in a somber reference to the American ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, who was killed with three other Americans two weeks ago during the attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi.
Mr. Obama spoke of Mr. Stevens’s “love and respect” for the people of North Africa and the Middle East, of his penchant for “walking the streets of the cities where he worked, tasting the local food, meeting as many people as he could, speaking Arabic and listening with a broad smile.”
At the close of his remarks, he returned to Mr. Stevens, who was well known to many of the diplomats gathered before him.
“Today I promise you this — long after these killers are brought to justice, Chris Stevens’s legacy will live on in the lives he touched. In the tens of thousands who marched against violence through the streets of Benghazi; in the Libyans who changed their Facebook photo to one of Chris; in the sign that read, simply, ‘Chris Stevens was a friend to all Libyans.'”
This article, “In UN Speech, Obama Warns Time Runs Short on Iran,” originally appeared in The New York Times.