With an eye as much on American voters as on the delegates before him, President Barack Obama told the General Assembly that the recent attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities constitute "an assault on the very ideals upon which the United Nations was founded." He also warned once again that Iran's nuclear program must be stopped.
Beginning his speech with the remarkable life story of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, who died in the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi earlier this month, Obama condemned the violence that erupted in the greater Middle East in response to an anti-Muslim video. "There are no words that excuse the killing of innocents," he said.
Obama coupled this condemnation of "mindless violence" with an extended defense of freedom of speech, an implicit acknowledgement of domestic criticisms of his initial response to the attacks on U.S. missions. He then challenged those who were offended by slanders against Islam to condemn hatred and intolerance directed against any religion, a sentiment that will play well within the United States, if not elsewhere in the world.
Obama spoke equally bluntly about Iran's nuclear program: "Make no mistake: a nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained."
In a clear warning to Tehran, and hinting at his possible willingness to act without UN approval, he added that "the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon."
The tough talk on Iran came a day after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accused Israel of "threatening" the United States to act against Iran. But Obama did not draw the sort of "clear red line" that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called for, and he stopped well short of committing the United States to using military force against Iran.
Obama's speech probably will not slow the recent surge of Republican criticisms of his foreign policy leadership. GOP presidential challenger Mitt Romney charged yesterday that the president has left the United States "at the mercy of events rather than shaping the events in the Middle East." Meanwhile, Romney surrogates complained that Obama short-changed his presidential duties by spending just twenty-four hours at the UN before heading back out on the campaign trail. Obama skipped the traditional bilateral meetings with foreign heads of state--he held more than a dozen last year--but did find time sit down for an interview with the women of The View.
With Election Day just six weeks away, Republicans have taken heart that Obama's foreign policy ratings have been slipping, especially among the independent voters that both campaigns covet. Nonetheless, a number of opinion surveys also show that the public believes by a sizable margin that Obama would do a better job than Romney as commander-in-chief. Nothing in what Obama said in his speech today is likely to harm that lead, which may have been the point.