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At U.N., President Obama Delivers ‘Tough Love Speech,’ Condemns Violent Protests

September 25, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
In addressing the 2012 United Nations General Assembly, President Obama condemned 'mindless violence' in anti-American protests, said Syrian President Assad's regime must end and affirmed support for new democracies that rose from the Arab Spring. Judy Woodruff talks to Margaret Warner for reaction on the president's remarks.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: President Obama faced an international audience today against the backdrop of a reelection campaign at home and anti-American violence abroad.

The president took the stage at the United Nations, urging the assembled leaders to address the wave of anger across the Muslim world.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The attacks of last two weeks are not simply an assault on America. They’re also an assault on the very ideals upon which the United Nations was founded.

If we are serious about these ideals, we must speak honestly about the deeper causes of the crisis, because we face a choice between the forces that would drive us apart and the hopes that we hold in common.

JUDY WOODRUFF: At least 50 people have died in the violence initially sparked by an anti-Islamic video. And U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed in an assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

The president condemned the video, but he insisted there is no justification for mindless violence.

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BARACK OBAMA: Given the power of faith in our lives and the passion that religious differences can inflame, 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.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mr. Obama also had a new warning on Iran’s nuclear program. Yesterday, Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad repeated his claim that the program is only for peaceful purposes, an explanation the U.S. and other countries dismiss.

And, today, the president said again Iran cannot be allowed to build nuclear weapons.

BARACK OBAMA: Let me be clear. America wants to resolve this issue through diplomacy. And we believe that there is still time and space to do so. But 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 stability of the global economy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Turning to the civil war in Syria, the president repeated his call for an end to the bloodshed and to the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

BARACK OBAMA: If there is a cause that cries out for protest in the world today, peaceful protest, it is a regime that tortures children and shoots rockets at apartment buildings.

And we must remain engaged to assure that what began with citizens demanding their rights doesn’t end in a cycle of sectarian violence.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mr. Obama’s Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, cited the same issues before the Clinton Global Initiative conference in New York. But Romney implied the real problem is a failure of U.S. leadership.

MITT ROMNEY (R): A lot of Americans are troubled by developments in the Middle East. Syria has witnessed the killing of tens of thousands of people. The president of Egypt is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Our ambassador to Libya was assassinated in a terrorist attack. Iran is moving toward nuclear weapons capability.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Romney used tougher language yesterday in Pueblo, Colo. Then, he criticized the president’s remarks in his “60 Minutes” interview that the Arab spring brought many challenges for the U.S. and that there would be bumps in the road.

MITT ROMNEY: These are not bumps in the road. These are human lives. These are developments we do not want to see. This is time for a president who will shape events in the Middle East, not just be merciful or be at mercy of the events in the Middle East.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president also spoke before the Clinton Global Initiative today, but he didn’t meet with any foreign leaders.

Instead, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had one-on-ones with the U.N. special representative to Syria and a number of other officials.

Margaret Warner is at the United Nations. I spoke to her just a short time ago.

Hello, Margaret.

So what message was President Obama in his speech and Secretary Clinton in her meetings trying to send?

MARGARET WARNER: Judy, I think the way to look at this is a tough love speech from the president and also privately from Secretary Clinton. And that is to the leaders of these post-revolutionary countries that are now trying to make this transition.

And it was that they have to stand up to violence and intolerance in their own societies and extremism.

And President Obama said, you know, it’s not that we endorse hateful speech. We thought the video was offensive, but even when I am criticized with hateful speech, he said, I will fiercely defend the right of people to say it.

He also gave them a very practical reason. He said, you know, you’re not going to be able to deliver to people what you promise, what they elected you to do, which is jobs and prosperity, unless you get foreign investment. And you won’t get it with this kind of violence.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about inside the General Assembly? What was the reaction there to the president’s speech?

MARGARET WARNER: Judy, it was a lot more muted than four years ago when he came here and there was great hope and expectation. People stood in the aisles waiting, standing-room only.

This time, it was muted. There was polite applause. There was even somewhat enthusiastic applause for a couple of lines.

But a senior diplomat of a major — Muslim majority country said to me afterwards, it really was a campaign speech. We all understand that there’s very little bold that he can do, President Obama, on Syria or any number of other issues until after the election.

And so that also explains why there were not super high expectations for him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And picking up on that, we know Secretary Clinton has met with the leaders of a number of these Muslim countries. What was the message she was trying to send?

MARGARET WARNER: Really the same message. Clearly, they had a big agenda. With the Pakistani president, they wanted to talk about Afghanistan. There are a lot of development issues and so on.

But in terms of the theme of the wee, which has to do with how the U.S. and these countries are going to pull together, her message, as one aide said to me, is, look, when these kinds of things are rough, leaders have to stand up. And we know it’s very hard. You have got to find a way to channel their rage or let people express it, even express the outrage yourself at something like that video. But this is the tough part about being a leader. If you let it get out of hand, it’s going to engulf you, as well as your neighborhood.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, Margaret, what about what the president had to say about Iran in his remarks? How closely was that — how close was that to what the Israelis were looking for?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Judy, the president said publicly now in an international forum what he has said to smaller audiences in the past, which is containment is not an option with a nuclear-armed Iran. We must prevent it.

What he didn’t do is define what he means by prevention or at what stage, which Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel has wanted the president to do, to set the time earlier than before they get a weapon, which is when they get this total breakout capacity.

They have so much uranium they can break out in a matter of weeks or months and make a weapon.

So — but talking to the Israelis, they won’t say anything publicly. They have no comment. But, privately, I was told they were not surprised that President Obama wasn’t going to set, didn’t set a red line for Iran, that if you cross this red line, there will be consequences to pay, because he made that very clear to Prime Minister Netanyahu in their hour-long speech about nearly two weeks ago.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret Warner, thanks very much, covering these U.N. meetings for us all week.

MARGARET WARNER: Thanks, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you can watch all of President Obama’s speech to the General Assembly on our website. And we will be live-blogging events at the U.N. through Thursday.