In a much-anticipated address Tuesday at an annual meeting at the United Nations, President Obama challenged Arab leaders to safeguard democratic freedoms and confront the sources of unrest raging in the Muslim world. The closely watched speech is expected to be Obama's last international address before the November election, and he used it to confront a host of foreign policy issues at the heart of his battle against Republican challenger Mitt Romney. What did Obama's remarks say about the overseas issues that matter most to voters? Here, three takeaways:
1. Obama talked tough on Iran — but maybe not tough enough
The president has resisted pleas from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to set a "red line" that Iran can't cross, says Helene Cooper at The New York Times, but at the U.N., Obama warned Tehran that "time to diplomatically resolve the Iranian nuclear issue 'is not unlimited.'" He added: "The United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon." Obama's handling of Iran has been one of Romney's biggest complaints, and the president's stern talk didn't change that. As soon as Obama finished speaking, the Romney campaign said Obama was still letting Tehran inch closer to building its first nuclear weapon. Well, Team Romney is right, says Nile Gardiner at The Foundry. Obama's "milquetoast" scolding of Iran was "positively Carter-esque in tone and spirit," and "offered little confidence for those living in the direct firing line of an Iran, which may soon be armed with a nuclear weapon."
2. He's doubling down on his support for the Arab Spring
Addressing the attacks on American diplomatic outposts across the Muslim world, Obama lamented the violence as an "assault on the very ideals upon which the United Nations was founded" — "the notion that people can resolve their differences peacefully; that diplomacy can take the place of war; and that in an interdependent world, all of us have a stake in working towards greater opportunity and security for our citizens." Obama also stood up for basic freedoms, including free speech, saying that these aren't just American ideals, but universal rights. So much for the Right's complaint that Obama "apologizes for America," says Andrew Sullivan at The Daily Beast. Still, says Robert Dreyfuss at The Nation, in the end, Obama's rhetoric about democracy was "stirring but hollow." This speech "fell flat."
3. And he offered a moving eulogy for Chris Stevens
Romney has lambasted Obama for suggesting that unrest in the Muslim world is a mere "bump in the road," arguing that the president's remark is offensive considering that the violence claimed the lives of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Libya. At the U.N., Obama tried to turn the issue around, delivering a eulogy that "portrayed Stevens as an American patriot who 'embodied the best of America." Obama said that Stevens died doing good work in Benghazi — "the city he helped to save." "We must reaffirm," Obama said, "that our future will be determined by people like Christopher Stevens, not his killers." The purpose of the eulogy, says Colum Lynch at Foreign Policy, was to "draw a contrast between the optimism represented by Stevens life with that of the forces of extremism simmering beneath the surface in the Middle East."