By Amie Parnes and Julian Pecquet - 09/25/12 04:10 PM EDT
UNITED NATIONS – President Obama condemned the violent protests that have swept through the Muslim world in an address Tuesday to the United Nations General Assembly.
Obama’s address served as an election-year defense of free speech and indictment of intolerance to a body of international leaders whose applause was often tepid at best.
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.”
He spoke repeatedly of Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya killed with three other Americans in the Benghazi attack. Obama said the diplomat “embodied the best of America” and was “deeply invested in the international cooperation that the United Nations represents.”
Obama made clear that the United States had nothing to do with the anti-Muslim video that his administration says was the impetus to the attacks in Libya earlier this month.
He said the U.S. is a country “that has welcomed people of every race and religion,” and he was met with laughter from the crowd of his fellow world leaders when he discussed freedom of speech.
“Here in the United States, countless publications provoke offense,” he said. “Like me, the majority of Americans are Christian, and yet we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs. 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.”
Obama covered a range of foreign policy issues during the lengthy address that touched on the Arab Spring, Syria, Iran and Israel.
He said that while there are “huge challenges” as the countries in the Middle East transition to democracy, “I am convinced that ultimately government of the people, by the people and for the people is more likely to bring about the stability, prosperity and individual opportunity that serve as a basis for peace in our world.”
Obama devoted two paragraphs to Iran, issuing a stern warning that “the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is scheduled to address the world body on Wednesday and has spent the past few days publicly downplaying the threat of a preemptive Israeli strike.
The president also called for a “united and inclusive” Syria and promised “sanctions and consequences for those who persecute," a warning to both President Bashar Assad's regime and the rebels seeking to topple him. The speech contained no details about what the administration would do to help end the conflict, drawing an immediate rebuke from Senate hawk John McCain (R-Ariz.).
“At UNGA,” McCain tweeted, “President Obama mentions Syria but refuses to say he'll actually do anything about it.”
The address to the foreign leaders gathered here comes as foreign policy has taken up more oxygen than expected in the national dialogue, just six weeks before Election Day.
The attacks on the consulate in Libya and other U.S. embassies has focused the presidential race on leadership, and Republican nominee Mitt Romney has forcefully rebuked Obama’s handling of the world.
New questions about the administration’s story of what happened in Libya have also been raised by Republicans, who have questioned whether the consulate was secure and whether the attacks on it were premeditated.
One RNC official accused Obama of doing in the U.N. speech exactly what he falsely claimed Romney did — he "shot first and aimed later" on Libya.
"At first he claimed the attack resulted from the video instead of a terror attack on 9/11 anniversary," the official said. "There is no evidence of that now. Yet two weeks later they still are only talking about the video. It's mind-boggling. Did they have bad intelligence on what the attack was? Or are they trying to sweep under rug?"
Obama made the "shot first and aimed later" remark about Romney after the Republican issued a statement criticizing the administration's first reaction to the attack, which was reflected in a statement from the U.S. embassy in Egypt that criticized the anti-Islamic film posted on YouTube. The statement was issued before attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and consulate in Benghazi.
Romney’s campaign has also hit Obama hard for not meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the U.N. meetings, arguing it shows a lack of respect for the nation’s most important ally in the Middle East.
—This story was posted at 11:04 a.m. and was updated at 12:10 p.m.