President Barack Obama Tuesday delivered an unapologetic defense of American values and his under-fire Arab Spring policy, speaking to US voters from a world stage at the UN.
His Republican foe Mitt Romney also muscled in on the hoopla surrounding the annual UN General Assembly, striking a statesmanlike pose at the nearby New York gathering of ex-president Bill Clinton’s humanitarian organization.
The rivals jousted for foreign policy advantage a week before they clash in their first presidential debate, and as time ticks down to the election on November 6 in which Obama will ask voters for a second term.
But the interlude was brief, Obama skipped back to Washington, with a flurry of trips planned to battleground states, after only 24 hours in New York.
And he got an earful from critics for taping an appearance on ABC talkshow “The View” — reaching millions of women voters — instead of seeing leaders like Israeli’s Benjamin Netanyahu or Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi.
Obama, painted as an apologist for America and an appeaser of US enemies like Iran by Republicans, was under pressure over his approach to the turmoil spawned by revolutions in the Arab world following recent anti-US attacks.
In his UN General Assembly speech, Obama eulogized US ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, slain two weeks ago, as the epitome of US and UN values, linked Arab Spring aspirations to founding American principles and highlighted progress amid tumult in the Middle East.
Obama stressed that the violence of recent weeks sparked by a YouTube trailer for an anti-Muslim film made on US soil did not “represent the views of the overwhelming majority of Muslims.”
His remarks took aim at US commentators and politicians who have questioned whether hopes of freedom will cede to an Arab Winter and accuse him of being too laissez-faire in his approach to the region.
Quoting his hero Abraham Lincoln, Obama said he was convinced that “ultimately government ‘of the people, by the people and for the people’ is more likely to yield stability, prosperity and peace.”
With an eye on critics like Romney, who on Monday said Washington should “shape” events in the Middle East, Obama insisted American “has not, and will not, seek to dictate the outcome of democratic transitions abroad.”
Obama has insisted throughout the Arab Spring that peoples winning their own freedoms forge more sustainable futures than those imposed by outside powers.
Republicans respond that Obama has done too little to topple Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and of ignoring the green revolution in Iran.
The president however highlighted US action in Libya, support for a political transition in Yemen and backing for uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.
He also delivered unequivocal backing for the bedrock US value of free speech, even when it offends other cultures, after critics said he went soft on US core freedoms after the eruption in the Muslim world.
He again condemned the “crude and disgusting video” deemed offensive to Islam made in the United States which sparked outrage in the Muslim world but insisted it was no excuse for violence.
“We understand why people take offense to this video because millions of our citizens are among them,” Obama said, but noted he neither could nor should ban it because of free speech protections enshrined in the US Constitution.
“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.
Obama also said that in 2012, when “anyone with a cell phone can spread offensive views around the world with the click of a button, the notion that we can control the flow of information is obsolete.”
The president also warned Iran that if diplomacy does not change its behavior, the United States would do “what we must” to prevent Tehran getting a nuclear bomb.
While Obama is favored over Romney by voters in most opinion polls on foreign policy, Republicans have been portraying Obama as weak on Iran and accuse him of ignoring Israeli fears for its security.
Romney did not allow Obama have the spotlight to himself, speaking to the Clinton Global Initiative.
He said he would alter foreign aid policy by linking billions of dollars in assistance to trade and private enterprise in the developing world.
“Economic freedom is the only force in history that has consistently lifted people out of poverty — and kept people out of poverty,” Romney said.
Romney, who made hundreds of millions of dollars as a private equity investor, said traditional foreign aid had failed to relieve hardship.
Obama later also appeared at the forum, announcing a new effort to cut down on human trafficking. BP