UNITED NATIONS — President Barack Obama challenged the international community Tuesday to confront the causes of turmoil in the Middle East, saying the attacks on U.S. citizens in Libya "were attacks on America" and the world faces "a choice between the forces that would drive us apart and the hopes we hold in common."
Obama's speech to an annual gathering of world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly was his last before the November election, and campaign politics shadowed his words as he also spoke forcefully on Iran's nuclear program, the violence in Syria, the peace prospects between Israelis and Palestinians and the tensions that can come with freedom of speech.
"I do believe that it is the obligation of all leaders, in all countries, to speak out forcefully against violence and extremism," Obama said.
The president condemned the amateur anti-Muslim video made in the U.S. that helped spark the recent protests that killed dozens of people, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, calling it "cruel and disgusting."
"There is no speech that justifies mindless violence," Obama said.
But he strongly defended the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of the freedom of expression, "even views that we profoundly disagree with."
The foreign minister of Indonesia, the nation with world's largest Muslim population, said Obama's speech was a "clarion call" for all nations to shun intolerance, and he expected Muslim nations to react positively. .
"There will be a lot of sympathy. It is an issue that galvanizes all of us," Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told The Associated Press. But he added that freedom of expression should be exercised with consideration to morality and public order.
Obama also warned that the time to peacefully curb the Iranian nuclear crisis is running out. Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful, but fears that it is pursuing nuclear weapons have led Israel to threaten an attack.
Obama said there is "still time and space" to resolve the issue through diplomacy, but he said that time is not unlimited.
"Make no mistake: A nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained. It would threaten the elimination of Israel, the security of Gulf nations and the unraveling of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty," he said.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has accused Obama of not being tough enough on Iran and of turning his back on Israel and other allies in the Middle East. Romney also has said he doesn't have much faith in peace prospects between Israelis and Palestinians.
Obama told the U.N.: "Among Israelis and Palestinians, the future must not belong to those who turn their backs on the prospect of peace."
Romney in separate remarks Tuesday to a global forum sponsored by former President Bill Clinton, said the attack at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that took the life of the U.S. ambassador and three other U.S. citizens was "a terrorist attack."
Obama has not specifically called the attack in Libya terrorism, but Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Obama's top spokesman have said it was a terrorist attack.
Obama mentioned the slain U.S. ambassador several times in his address and said the United States "will be relentless in tracking down the killers and bringing them to justice."
He said he appreciated "that in recent days, the leaders of other countries in the region — including Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen — have taken steps to secure our diplomatic facilities and called for calm. So have religious authorities around the globe."
Obama said that "at a time when anyone with a cellphone can spread offensive views around the world with the click of a button," the notion that governments can control the flow of information is obsolete.
"The strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech — the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect," he said.
The president said there was no way the United States would have just banned the offensive video that helped trigger the attacks, as some leaders in the Muslim world have advocated.
"Like me, the majority of Americans are Christian, and yet we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs," Obama said.
"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, to laughter from his audience.
Running through Obama's speech was the theme that leaders in the Muslim world also should stand up for freer speech and oppose those who vent their anger with violence.
"There are no words that excuse the killing of innocents. There is no video that justifies an attack on an embassy. There is no slander that provides an excuse for people to burn a restaurant in Lebanon or destroy a school in Tunis or cause death and destruction in Pakistan," Obama said.
"More broadly, the events of the last two weeks speak to the need for all of us to address honestly the tensions between the West and an Arab world moving to democracy," he said.
But, he added, "Just as we cannot solve every problem in the world, the United States has not, and will not, seek to dictate the outcome of democratic transitions abroad, and we do not expect other nations to agree with us on every issue.
"Nor do we assume that the violence of the past weeks, or the hateful speech by some individuals, represents the views of the overwhelming majority of Muslims — any more than the views of the people who produced this video represent those of Americans."
Turning to the rising violence in Syria, Obama said, "The future must not belong to a dictator who massacres his people. If there is a cause that cries out for protest in the world today, it is a regime that tortures children and shoots rockets at apartment buildings. We must remain engaged to assure that what began with citizens demanding their rights does not end in a cycle of sectarian violence."
Obama said the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad must come to an end.
He added, "Together, we must stand with those Syrians who believe in a different vision — a Syria that is united and inclusive, where children don't need to fear their own government and all Syrians have a say in how they are governed— Sunnis and Alawites, Kurds and Christians."
Obama also noted some hopeful developments in the world in the nearly four years he's been in office.
"The war in Iraq is over, and our troops have come home. We have begun a transition in Afghanistan, and America and our allies will end our war on schedule in 2014," he said. "Al-Qaida has been weakened, and Osama bin Laden is no more. Nations have come together to lock down nuclear materials, and America and Russia are reducing our arsenals."
Summing up, Obama said, "true democracy — real freedom — is hard work."
Declaring it is time to leave "the call of violence and the politics of division behind," Obama said: "We cannot afford to get it wrong. We must seize this moment. And America stands ready to work with all who are willing to embrace a better future."
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