Barack Obama, the US president, has challenged the international community to confront the causes of turmoil in the Middle East, saying the attacks on US citizens in Libya “were attacks on America” and the world faces “a choice between the forces that would drive us apart and the hopes we hold in common”.
Obama’s speech to an annual gathering of world leaders at the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, was his last before the November election, and campaign politics shadowed his words as he also spoke forcefully on Iran’s nuclear programme, the violence in Syria, the peace prospects between Israelis and Palestinians and the tensions that can come with freedom of speech.
“I do believe that it is the obligation of all leaders, in all countries, to speak out forcefully against violence and extremism,” Obama said.
The president condemned the amateur anti-Muslim video made in the US that helped spark the recent protests that killed dozens of people, including the US ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, calling it “cruel and disgusting”.
“Make no mistake: A nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained“
- US President Barack Obama
For the full speech, click here.
Obama mentioned the slain US ambassador several times in his address and said the US “will be relentless in tracking down the killers and bringing them to justice”.
“There is no speech that justifies mindless violence,” Obama said.
But he strongly defended the US constitution’s guarantee of the freedom of expression, “even views that we profoundly disagree with”.
Obama also warned that the time to peacefully curb the Iranian nuclear crisis is running out. Iran insists its nuclear programme is peaceful, but fears that it is pursuing nuclear weapons have led Israel to threaten an attack.
Obama said there is “still time and space” to resolve the issue through diplomacy, but he said that time is not unlimited.
“Make no mistake: A nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained. It would threaten the elimination of Israel, the security of Gulf nations and the unravelling of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty,” he said.
Obama told the UN: “Among Israelis and Palestinians, the future must not belong to those who turn their backs on the prospect of peace”.
Marwan Bishara, Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst, said the US president “was long on generalities and short on specifics, I think he was lecturing the world, but speaking to the American people”.
President Obama provided “no specifics on how to end the nuclear proliferation, dictatorships” and ”no road map on how the UN is going to work with the US in order to advance peace in the Middle East. He provided only general guidelines of American values and why America supports peace and harmony and the forces of hope in the region,” he added.
A common theme running throughout Obama’s speech was that leaders in the Muslim world also should stand up for freer speech and oppose those who vent their anger with violence.
Obama said that “at a time when anyone with a cellphone can spread offensive views around the world with the click of a button,” the notion that governments can control the flow of information is obsolete.
“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,” he said.
The president said there was no way the US would have just banned the offensive video that helped trigger the attacks, as some leaders in the Muslim world have advocated.
“Like me, the majority of Americans are Christian, and yet we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs,” Obama said.
“Moreover, 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, and I will always defend their right to do so,” he said, to laughter from his audience.
“There are no words that excuse the killing of innocents. 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,” Obama said.
“More broadly, 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,” he said.
But, he added, “Just as we cannot solve every problem in the world, the US 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.”
Turning to the rising violence in Syria, Obama said, “The future must not belong to a dictator who massacres his people”.
If there is a cause that cries out for protest in the world today, it is a regime that tortures children and shoots rockets at apartment buildings. We must remain engaged to assure that what began with citizens demanding their rights does not end in a cycle of sectarian violence”.
Obama said the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad must come to an end.
He added, “Together, we must stand with those Syrians who believe in a different vision, a Syria that is united and inclusive, where children don’t need to fear their own government and all Syrians have a say in how they are governed Sunnis and Alawites, Kurds and Christians.”
Obama did say “that Iran must stop supporting the Syrian dictator. So in a sense he made clear that Bashar al-Assad has to go. But absolutely no prescription as to how this is going to happen,” according to our analyst.
Opening the meeting on Tuesday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the fighting in Syria as “a regional calamity with global ramifications”.
Ban said he was sounding the alarm about widespread insecurity and injustice, inequality and intolerance in many countries.
Putting the spotlight on Syria, Ban said “the international community should not look the other way as violence spirals out of control”.
Ban said the 18-month conflict was a growing threat to international peace that required attention from the deeply divided UN Security Council.
Obama also noted some hopeful developments in the world in the nearly four years he has been in office.
“The war in Iraq is over, and our troops have come home. We have begun a transition in Afghanistan, and America and our allies will end our war on schedule in 2014,” he said.
“Al-Qaeda has been weakened, and Osama bin Laden is no more. Nations have come together to lock down nuclear materials, and America and Russia are reducing our arsenals.”
Summing up, Obama said, “true democracy, real freedom, is hard work.”
Declaring it is time to leave “the call of violence and the politics of division behind” and “seize this moment”, adding that “America stands ready to work with all who are willing to embrace a better future”.
AL JAZEERA ENGLISH (AJE)