Obama to answer foreign policy criticism in UN address

NEW YORK — President Obama will use his address to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday to argue his administration will have a muscular and active policy in the Middle East, an effort to counter recent criticism from Mitt Romney.

When he takes the stage, Obama will “send a clear message that the United States will never retreat from the world,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said on Monday.

The address comes at a pivotal point in the presidential race just six weeks before Election Day, with Obama appearing to be opening a lead in a number of swing states. 

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While the economy remains the dominant issue in the campaign, Obama will be forced to address the criticism lobbed in recent days from Romney and Republicans, who have sought to portray him as weak and inconsistent on foreign policy.

The Romney campaign has seized on Obama’s decision not to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the General Assembly, as well as the recent attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya to bolster its argument that the president’s policies abroad aren’t as strong as he has been portraying to the American public.

Romney officials argue that the president is undermining U.S. strength overseas and abandoning its closest allies, including Israel. Romney aides point to the fact that Obama taped an appearance on ABC’s “The View” instead of using the time to meet with the assembled leaders as part of traditional bilateral meetings.


Team Romney also pounced on Obama’s foreign policy comments on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” saying that he had “dismissed” the deaths of four Americans in the Libyan assault as “bumps in the road.”

Carney on Monday called that suggestion a “desperate and offensive” effort to find political advantage, saying Obama was referring to the transformations in the region, which began less than two years ago.

“Obviously in these countries there are huge challenges, huge obstacles to the kinds of change that the people in these countries are demanding, to the kinds of governments that are democratic in nature and responsive to the interests of average citizens in these countries,” Carney said. “That was the context of the president’s comments.”

Carney insisted Obama’s address on Tuesday would not be “a campaign speech.”

“This is a speech in which the president will make clear his views, the administration’s positions, and America’s role with regards to a lot of transformation that’s happening in the world,” he said.

Carney said the speech represents an opportunity for the United States to “assert its values,” and that Obama will address the unrest in the Muslim world while rejecting the views of a recent film the administration has said was the impetus for the attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Libya. 

He will also make clear that the U.S. will bring justice to those who harm Americans, aides said.

In prepared excerpts from the president's speech released early Tuesday, Obama condemns the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya earlier this month as "not simply an assault on America," but also "an assault on the very ideals upon which the United Nations was founded."

Obama will also tell world leaders that while he wants to address Iran's nuclear program through diplomacy, "time is not unlimited" for negotiations. "The United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon," the president is expected to say.

Obama’s speech comes amid questions from Republicans about the administration’s account of the Libya attack. Republicans say a briefing from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week was worthless, and they argue the incident appeared to be a planned attack. The administration repeatedly has said no intelligence suggests the attack was premeditated.

The U.N. platform will also provide Obama the opportunity to underscore that Iran must not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon, Carney said. Romney surrogates on Monday accused Obama of downplaying the threat to Israel by dismissing calls for clearer “red lines” from Netanyahu and others as “noise” in that same “60 Minutes” interview.

“President Obama recently characterized Israel’s concern about the prospect of a nuclear Iran as ‘noise,’ and, to add insult to injury, knocked Israel down a notch to simply ‘one of our closest allies in the region,’ ” John Bolton, President George W. Bush’s ambassador to the U.N. and a Romney adviser, said in a statement.

“But the fact of the matter is that Israel is without a doubt our closest and most reliable ally in the region. Its concerns about an Iran armed with a nuclear weapon aren’t simply noise; they are central not only to self-preservation and security, but also to peace. These comments offer just the latest indication that President Obama doesn’t fully grasp the seriousness of the foreign-policy challenges facing our nation,” Bolton said.

Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said Obama’s address should make clear the United States has Israel’s back.

“There’s really no daylight in the public positions of Israel and the U.S. in terms of how we should confront this challenge,” Smith said on a conference call organized by the pro-Democrat National Security Network. “So in that sense, whether President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu meet or don’t meet is really largely irrelevant. Israel and the U.S. are constantly in contact on this issue.”

Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, said it’s “hard to predict” whether the ongoing violence in the Middle East will hurt the president’s reelection chances.

“If the crisis gets worse, protests continue and the region looks unstable, it could help Romney slightly, fueling Republican arguments about how President Obama’s foreign policies are ineffective and, more generally, raising concerns about his leadership skills,” he said.

“If it fizzles, then this will be a blip politically and only consume time when Romney should have been focused on the economy. It would also support the claim that President Obama’s foreign policy has generally been sound.”

This story was updated at 7:19 a.m.