It’s disappointing that President Obama decided not to meet privately with some of the world’s leaders during the annual meetings of the U.N. General Assembly. Such opportunities ought not be squandered.
Given the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, a meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai might have proved helpful. One would think the president and Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, could have a constructive conversation Same with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But if President Obama’s visit to New York wasn’t everything it could have been, it was nevertheless memorable. His speech Tuesday before the General Assembly involved an eloquent vision of America’s foreign policy goals and a fair assessment of present crises.
That the speech started quietly, with the president saying. “I would like to begin by telling you about a young man named Chris Stevens” — the U.S. Ambassador to Libya who was killed during a terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi — only set the stage for a speech that outlined for the world’s leaders a better sense of what it will take to make our planet a safer place.
Ambassador Stevens, as President Obama made clear, represented what is best about America. Another of America’s great assets that the president focused on was freedom of speech — a precious right enshrined in our Constitution. It is a concept that the president argued, correctly, ought to be regarded as integral to peace and unity, not violence and division. In a reference to violence aimed at the United States related to an offensive depiction of Islam and the prophet Mohammed, the president declared, ”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.”
Egypt’s President Morsi, was expected in his speech to the General Assembly today to argue that free expression must be accompanied by accountability. He would be right in the concept but wrong if his definition of accountability involves killing or locking up dissidents for criticizing the government, which is common in the Middle East and other parts of the world.
As President Obama noted, he gets “called awful things every day,” but would defend people’s right to continue doing that.
President Obama also was right to tell the world’s leaders, “Today we must affirm that our future will be determined by people like Chris Stevens, and not by his killers. Today we must declare that this violence and intolerance has no place among our United Nations.”