President Obama sought to counter Republican rhetoric that the Middle East is spinning out of control with a speech at the United Nations aimed as much at the angry crowds in Cairo, Egypt, as on-the-fence voters in Ohio.
Obama called on the gathered leaders to “seize this moment” and “speak out forcefully against violence and extremism,” adding that “real freedom is hard work.”
“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.
Republicans argued Obama offered no new ideas for making progress on stalled issues, particularly Iran and Syria.
“If you look at the president's U.N. General Assembly speeches over the years — 2009, 2010, 2011 — he cites the biggest challenges facing America and the U.N. and world,” Dan Senor, a senior adviser to GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, told MSNBC. “He said Iran in 2009, cited the Israeli peace process, cited Syria before. All these situations are in disarray."
Senate Republican hawks John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) decried a “complete lack of leadership and unwillingness to take the actions ... that could end the violence” in Syria.
The president's defenders asked what, exactly, Republicans would do differently.
“The president’s speech today reinforced his record of pragmatic, effective policies supported by the American public and military leadership,” said Heather Hurlburt of the left-leaning National Security Network. “His neoconservative critics have nothing to offer but failed policies that the public rejects.”
Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters after the speech that the president “felt it was very important to address directly what has been going on the Middle East and North Africa,” where violent protests sparked by a U.S.-made anti-Islam video led to the deaths of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Libya.
Obama cited Stevens and his friendship with the Libyan people in his opening and closing remarks as a symbol of progress in the restive Middle East.
“In general,” Rhodes said, “it was a chance for the president to step back and lift up his view of the world as it stands today and to project a vision of American leadership that deals with the challenges we face and supports our values around the world.”
Some Republicans said the president failed to make that case forcefully enough — for example, when he argued that “the future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.”
“He continues to offer up apologies instead of defending our hard earned First Amendment right to freedom of speech and expression,” Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) wrote on his Facebook page after the speech. “There is no message to this silly video trailer, and it is beneath the dignity and esteem of the Office of the President of the United States to mention it at all.”
Stewart Patrick, the director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program at the Council on Foreign Relations, said such a one-sided approach to the issue would have been counterproductive in building bridges at the U.N., which he called a key tool for achieving U.S. objectives around the world.
“The United States has to worry about its reputation in the Islamic world,” Patrick said. “He was unapologetic about freedom of speech as a fundamental goal, and that's the most important thing. But he also threw an olive branch to the Muslim world by calling it blasphemy.
“I think that was a wise move, because he was recognizing it was wrong but his remedy was different than theirs. And by at least recognizing ... the offense ... he was giving dignity to Muslims who were offended by it.”
Obama warned Iran that “the United States will do what we must” to prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
The tough talk comes as Republicans have sought to capitalize on the public rift between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose request to meet with the president on the margins of the meeting were rebuffed.
Republicans continued to hit Obama for spending less than 24 hours in New York and not meeting with any foreign leaders.
The president did meet with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and stopped by to thank Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi for keeping U.S. diplomats safe in recent days. Obama met with 13 world leaders last year.
“If the President had taken some time to hold even one meeting with his foreign colleagues during his visit to the U.N. General Assembly in New York today,” McCain, Graham and Ayotte said, “perhaps they would have told him what has really happened in the Middle East on his watch.”
But Patrick said meeting with Netanyahu would have required him to then meet with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and other leaders as well, opening up the president to yet more criticism from Republicans.