The United States “will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” President Barack Obama told the United Nations General Assembly in a lengthy address on Tuesday, offering a stern warning to Tehran but stopping short of issuing an explicit red line called for by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in recent weeks.
In addition to taking Iran to task for oppressing its own people, backing the dictatorial regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and supporting terrorism around the world, Obama also called for peace between Israel and Palestinians in which a “secure, Jewish state of Israel” exists next to “an independent, prosperous Palestine.”
Yet these issues were secondary to other developments in the Middle East, as the American president addressed the violent protests across the Muslim world sparked by the anti-Islam film “Innocence of Muslims.” While he denounced the film, Obama poured greater criticism on those who exploited it to foment violence, and stated that democracy and freedom of speech were the only remedies for offensive speech.
“The strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression,” Obama said, “it is more speech – the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.”
Obama began his address by paying tribute to the US Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, killed at the US Consulate in Benghazi two weeks ago amid protests over the anti-Islam film.
“Stevens embodied the best of America. Like his fellow Foreign Service officers, he built bridges across oceans and cultures, and was deeply invested in the international cooperation that the United Nations represents,” the president said. “He acted with humility, but stood up for a set of principles – a belief that individuals should be free to determine their own destiny, and live with liberty, dignity, justice, and opportunity.”
The wave of attacks of the last two weeks, Obama said, “are not simply an assault on America. 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.”
Today, he said, “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.”
Surveying the developments of the Arab Spring, Obama added that “the turmoil of recent weeks reminds us that the path to democracy does not end with the casting of a ballot. Nelson Mandela once said: ‘to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.’
“True democracy demands that citizens cannot be thrown in jail because of what they believe, and businesses can be opened without paying a bribe. It depends on the freedom of citizens to speak their minds and assemble without fear; on the rule of law and due process that guarantees the rights of all people. In other words, true democracy – real freedom – is hard work.”
He said the events of the last two weeks “speak to the need for all of us to address honestly the tensions between the West and an Arab World moving to democracy. Just as we cannot solve every problem in the world, the United States has not, and will not, seek to dictate the outcome of democratic transitions abroad, and we do not expect other nations to agree with us on every issue. Nor do we assume that the violence of the past weeks, or the hateful speech by some individuals, represents the views of the overwhelming majority of Muslims – any more than the views of the people who produced this video represent those of Americans.
“However,” said Obama, “I do believe that it is the obligation of all leaders, in all countries, to speak out forcefully against violence and extremism. It is time to marginalize those who – even when not resorting to violence – use hatred of America, or the West, or Israel as a central principle of politics. For that only gives cover, and sometimes makes excuses, for those who resort to violence.
“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,” he said. “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. 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.”