At the U.N., Obama defends free speech

President Obama delivered an impassioned defense of freedom of speech at the United Nations, and challenged Arab leaders to denounce the anti-American violence.

What happened

President Obama delivered an impassioned defense of freedom of speech at the United Nations this week, and challenged Arab leaders to denounce the anti-American violence that has flared across the Muslim world. Speaking at the U.N. General Assembly in New York, Obama condemned the U.S.-made anti-Islam video that ostensibly sparked the recent riots as “crude and disgusting.” But he explained that the First Amendment protects even hateful writings, film, and speech. As president, “I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day,” he said. “And I will always defend their right to do so.” Obama called on Arabs who denounce “the slander of the Prophet of Islam” to also speak out against radicals who destroy Christian churches, deny the Holocaust, and “use hatred of America, or the West, or Israel as the central principle of politics.”

Obama also issued a warning to Iran, saying there was limited time to resolve the standoff over the country’s nuclear program through diplomacy. “A nuclear-armed Iran cannot be contained,” Obama said. “The United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” But he refused to set the specific “red line” for military action that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had demanded. In his speech before the U.N., Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad scoffed at Obama’s warning, told the U.N. meeting that his country was being threatened by “uncivilized Zionists,” and likened Israel to “the Devil.”

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What the editorials said

Obama has sent a vital message to the Middle East, said The Washington Post. Many people there automatically blamed the U.S. government for the anti-Muslim video—“a vile but obscure piece of Internet flotsam”—because their own authoritarian rulers control every media outlet. By explaining that the U.S. government “does not sponsor or endorse religious slander,” but defends all free speech, Obama has addressed a deadly misunderstanding.

His warning to Iran was nothing more than rhetoric, said The Wall Street Journal. Obama promised that he would prevent the Islamic Republic from going nuclear, but “the cold reality is that after nearly four years of failed diplomacy and half-hearted sanctions,” neither Iran nor Israel believe him. Indeed, Ahmadinejad was jaunty and arrogant during his visit to New York, snidely flashing peace signs and describing Israel as a short-lived historical aberration that would soon be “eliminated.”

What the columnists said

This was the president at his best, said John Avlon in He robustly defended America’s support for the Arab Spring uprisings “in almost Bush-ian” tones, declaring that freedom and self-determination “are not simply American values or Western values; they are universal values.” At a time when the rift between the U.S. and the Muslim world is growing, this was the speech “Obama needed to give—and the world needed to hear.”

The words were pretty, but cowardly, said Jennifer Rubin in Obama has never voiced a word of objection “when evangelical Christians are vilified, when art displays portray Jesus in offensive ways, or when Broadway musicals jab at Mormons.” But he’s quick to denounce an obscure YouTube video as “slander” to appease Muslim extremists. The president should have told the U.N. “that the U.S. does not label obnoxious speech ‘slander,’ nor apologize for it. It defends liberty. Period.” By calling on Arab leaders to denounce all hate speech, said Brett D. Schaefer in, Obama actually lent “credibility to the notion that governments should be policing speech.”

In discussing Iran, Obama had a good reason to be vague about what might trigger a military response, said Tony Karon in U.S. allies in Europe support sanctions primarily because they believe they “are the only alternative to Israel’s starting a potentially disastrous war.” If the U.S. ever decides to attack Iran over its nuclear program, “it will likely do so with an even smaller coalition of the willing than President Bush had when he invaded Iraq.” For now, Obama is holding out for a diplomatic solution. But if he gets a second term, he won’t be able to kick this can down the road much longer, and he’ll be held responsible for the outcome.

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