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From the podium at the opening session of the 67th UN General Assembly, President Barack Obama defended freedom of speech as a human right that must not be infringed and expressed confidence that “the rising tide of liberty”—as witnessed in the Arab spring—“will never be reversed.” His speech was a welcome riposte to demands from Muslim leaders, outraged by a crude video mocking the prophet Mohammed, for global rules against the defamation of religion. At the same time, his address reminded us of how turbulent the “Arab spring” that Obama lauded in last year’s speech had become.
In insisting on freedom of speech, the president was right on target. For years, Islamic religious and political leaders have advocated for international laws against the defamation of religious beliefs and texts. The United States has rightly resisted such efforts, recognizing that tyrants could use such tools “to silence critics or oppress minorities.” The U.S. Constitution thus enshrines freedom of speech as a fundamental right, Obama explained, to the degree that “we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs.” The answer to offensive hateful speech is not persecution or imprisonment, but “more speech,” so that voices of tolerance and mutual understanding shout down those of “bigotry and blasphemy.” At the same time, the president doubled down on stressing the abhorrent content of the video, helping preserve some goodwill in the new Arab spring democracies.
As the president acknowledged, not all UN member states share this unquestioned commitment to free speech. But it is the only workable solution in an age of of instantaneous communications, when an unending supply of offensive messages and images can be spread to all corners of the world at the press of a button. In such an interconnected world, the effort to control the flow of information is a fool’s errand. Nor does the spate of violent outbursts we have witnessed in recent weeks bring anything but destruction and division, while empowering the worst among us. “It is time,” Obama declared, “to leave the call of violence and the politics of division behind.” Political leaders must speak out against hateful messages. But official censorship is never the answer.
President Obama’s second major theme was that the ideals of the Arab spring endure, despite the turbulence that has engulfed the Middle East and Muslim world in recent weeks. Here, he had a tougher case to make. A year ago, the president spoke at a heady time, touting the toppling of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, as well as the UN-mandated operation that deposed Muammar al -Qaddafi in Libya and saved thousands of innocent lives. Today’s speech was somber, and appropriately so, given anti-American riots that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya, the unending slaughter in Syria, and Iran’s continued race for nuclear weapons.
The president opened with a moving remembrance of Christopher Stevens, the slain U.S. ambassador, who had dedicated his life to U.S.-Arab understanding and, ultimately, sacrificed it in the effort to make Libyans free. He did not die in vain, Obama implied, for the majority of Libyans—and Arabs generally—yearn to live under democratic freedoms. “History is on our side,” the president insisted, and “a rising tide of liberty will never be reversed.”
This argument is harder to sustain in the case of Syria, where the death toll now exceeds 25,000, thanks to Bashar al-Assad’s determination to remain in power and the failure of the UN Security Council to agree on forceful action in the face of repeated vetoes from Russia and China. Faced with this context, the White House appears paralyzed, calling the situation unacceptable yet remaining unwilling to arm the rebel forces, much less assume the tremendous risks of leading a “coalition of the willing” to support them militarily. An understandable position, perhaps, given uncertainty about the coherence of the Syrian opposition and the constraints of a tight presidential race and uncertainty—but a recipe for continued, grinding conflict. Just last summer, the president created an Atrocities Prevention Board to address just these sorts of contingencies. It was notable that he avoided any mention of that body in his speech.
On the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the speech criticized the virulent opposition to Israel in countries like Iran—but also included a soft jab between the lines at his domestic presidential competitor, Mitt Romney. A media firestorm erupted after a recently leaked video showed Romney stating that the Palestinians were uninterested in peace and that a two-state solution would be “almost unthinkable to accomplish.” Obama clearly separated himself from his opponent, by forcefully stating that the “the destination is clear – a secure, Jewish state of Israel; and an independent, prosperous Palestine.” Given that the United States is currently pressuring the Palestinian Authority to refrain from pursuing non-member observer state status at the UN, the statement was also intended to reinforce support for a two-state solution negotiated between Israel and Palestine.
The toughest Middle East challenge confronting the White House, of course, is Iran. Here, the president repeated what he has said before: “the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” Although strategists disagree over whether a nuclear armed Iran could be subject to deterrence, the president is clearly skeptical: “A nuclear Iran is not a challenge that can be contained,” he asserted, and one that would pose an existential threat to Israel and the Gulf nations, as well as triggering a regional nuclear arms race and unraveling the NPT. At the same time, Obama clearly disappointed the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanahu, by maintaining the U.S. “red line” at the actual acquisition of a nuclear weapon—as opposed to simply the “capability” to produce one. Nor did he offer any signal that the UN Security Council—and particularly the Russian and Chinese permanent members—were prepared to tighten the screws on Tehran.
In short, the Obama administration’s positions all remain unchanged. The president used the speech to pressure the new heads of Arab Spring allies not to slip towards extremism, and to remain engaged with the United States. But on the two major flashpoints—Iran and Syria—Obama merely sought to make the case for the current path.