It wasn't quite the sweeping narrative of past addresses, but in a strongly worded speech before the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, President Barack Obama challenged the world leaders gathered before him to confront the forces of intolerance and extremism within their own countries and permit more freedom at home.
For a president whose past appearances at the U.N. have typically been marked by outreach and conciliation, Obama on Tuesday appeared notably frustrated by the unwillingness of other leaders, particularly in the Arab world, to critically examine the worst components of their own societies.
"True democracy -- real freedom -- is hard work," Obama said. "Those in power have to resist the temptation to crack down on dissent. In hard economic times, countries may be tempted to rally the people around perceived enemies, at home and abroad, rather than focusing on the painstaking work of reform."
The past few weeks have been tumultuous for American interests in the Middle East and North Africa, particularly after protesters stormed several U.S. diplomatic compounds in response to a privately produced, low-budget anti-Islam film, and an Islamist militant group attacked a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, leaving four Americans dead, including the U.S. ambassador, Christopher Stevens.
"The attacks of the last two weeks are not simply an assault on America," Obama said. "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."
He went on, "Today, we must affirm that our future will be determined by people like Chris Stevens, and not by his killers. Today, we must declare that this violence and intolerance has no place among our United Nations."
Denouncing the video that helped spark the protests as "crude and disgusting," Obama quickly turned to a defense of the American ideal of free speech that permitted such "offensive" publications to exist and issued a stern challenge to the assembled world leaders who had stood by while violent protests raged over the film.
"I know that not all countries in this body share this understanding of the protection of free speech," he said. "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. The question, then, is how we respond. And on this we must agree: There is no speech that justifies mindless violence."
With only a few weeks to go before an election that will likely be decided on domestic issues, Obama has been criticized for adopting a low-profile position at this year's General Assembly. His appearance at the U.N. was scheduled to be followed only by a speech at the Clinton Global Initiative before the president returned to Washington. He had scheduled no one-on-one meetings with any of the other world leaders.
Republicans in particular have criticized Obama for failing to schedule any bilateral meetings in New York, especially with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom the president has been in something close to open conflict over the proper course on Iran.
In his speech Tuesday, Obama reiterated his posture on Iran's nuclear program, saying that while the United States prefers a diplomatic solution, the time to find one "is not unlimited."
"Make no mistake: A nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained," Obama said. "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. That is why a coalition of countries is holding the Iranian government accountable. And that is why the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon."
He has also recently engaged in a delicate diplomatic dance with the newly elected president of Egypt, Mohammed Morsi, after Morsi stood by while angry protesters stormed the U.S. embassy in Cairo on Sept. 11. Obama signaled publicly in the aftermath of the attack that Egypt might not be considered an "ally" of the United States, and later held a stern phone call in which he clearly stated what America expected from the new leader, aides said.
Obama aides have said that the president's schedule does not allow for any bilateral meetings this week and pointed to his frequent contacts by phone with world leaders in recent days. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had a typically frenetic schedule in New York, holding meetings on Monday with the presidents of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Libya and Egypt over the course of a 12-hour day.
Still, there was no question that the specter of electoral politics loomed over the president's appearance in New York.
At the same time as Obama stepped onto the podium at the U.N., his visit to the talk show "The View" also aired, a clear indication of how the president had chosen to spend his time.
“Look, if he met with one leader, he would have to meet with 10,” a White House aide told The New York Times on Tuesday, acknowledging that Obama's campaign schedule had effectively closed the door to even a single meeting.
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