President Barack Obama gave foreign policy a new emphasis in the presidential campaign in his address the United Nations amid a resurgence of unrest in the Muslim world and as his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, intensified his criticism of the White House’s approach to the region.
In his speech Tuesday to the annual gathering of the U.N. General Assembly, the president condemned the anti-Muslim video that sparked protests. Violence in Libya led to the deaths of four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, after a storming of a U.S. consulate in Libya.
Mr. Obama referred to Mr. Stevens multiple times, citing the ambassador’s approach to the region to challenge the U.N. to denounce the violence that has taken hold there and to underscore the values the U.S. is seeking to promote abroad with its policy toward the Arab Spring.
Mr. Obama also stressed the importance of those in the region condemning slander against Christians and Jews.
“The attacks of the last two weeks are not simply an assault on America. They are also an assault on the very ideals upon which the United Nations was founded,” Mr. Obama said.
“If we are serious about those ideals, we must speak honestly about the deeper causes of this crisis,” he continued. “Because we face a choice between the forces that would drive us apart, and the hopes we hold in common.”
Mr. Obama reaffirmed his commitment to keeping Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, including his willingness to use military force. He said there is still time for diplomacy with Iran, and address the conflict in Syria and the stalled Middle East peace process.
“Make no mistake: a nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained,” Mr. Obama said.
Mr. Romney accused the president Monday of playing down tumult in the Middle East, saying the U.S. needs to exert stronger leadership and that the president needs to do more to shape events abroad.
Mr. Romney zeroed in on Mr. Obama’s remark in an interview that aired Sunday in which he said the U.S. had been right to align with democratic movements during the Arab Spring but that “there are going to be bumps in the road.”
“His indication that developments in the Middle East represent ‘bumps in the road’ is a very different view than I have,” Mr. Romney told ABC News.
The Republican candidate criticized Mr. Obama over the unrest in the Muslim world, Iran’s continued efforts on its nuclear program and the continuing violence in Syria, saying: “We’re at the mercy of events rather than shaping the events in the Middle East.”
He also suggested the president, in his “bumps in the road” remark, was referring specifically to the violence that caused the deaths of four Americans. “These are not bumps in the road; these are human lives,” Mr. Romney said at a campaign stop in Pueblo, Colo.
Mr. Obama’s aides said he meant there are going to be challenges as the region transforms, including the unrest in recent weeks that has included protests at U.S. embassies. White House press secretary Jay Carney called the charge that Mr. Obama was referring to the deaths of four Americans “desperate and offensive.”
The sniping between the two candidates comes as polls suggest that Mr. Obama’s leadership on foreign policy is coming under challenge. In the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey, conducted on Sept. 12-16, at the height of the violent protests in the Middle East and North Africa, more voters approved of the president’s handling of foreign policy than those who disapproved, 49% to 46%.
But those numbers marked a sharp drop from August, when 54% of voters gave the president high marks on foreign policy, compared with the 40% who disapproved.
The drop was severe among independent voters. In the August poll, far more independent voters approved of Mr. Obama’s handling of foreign policy than disapproved—53% to 38%. One month later, those disapproving outnumbered those approving by 10 percentage points, 51% to 41%.
In same September poll, Mr. Obama retained his lead over Mr. Romney on who voters see as better able to serve as commander in chief, with the president leading, 45% to 38%, on that trait.
Mr. Obama’s aides see the U.N. gathering as an opportunity for him to appear in a forum that makes him look presidential, and to put into context some foreign policy issues that have recently spilled into the political arena.
Mr. Obama used the U.N. platform to say that violence hasn’t been an acceptable response to the anti-Muslim video that has been blamed in for triggering protests, and that the U.S. won’t shrink its presence or its goals of promoting democratic values in the region. Mr. Romney had accused the president of abandoning the principle of free speech in the administration’s initial response to the recent protests.
“It’s a real moment for the United States to assert its values and its leadership role, to make clear where we stand in the midst of this remarkable period of transformation in the Arab world,” Mr. Carney said.
The president’s main goal during his 24-hour stay in New York is to do no harm. Unlike his past trips to the U.N. General Assembly, Mr. Obama hasn’t scheduled any meetings with world leaders. Last year, he held more than a dozen.
Instead Mr. Obama stopped by the set of the ABC TV show “The View” on Monday with first lady Michelle Obama, where he fielded a question on Libya amid conversation about lavishing his wife with attention on their 20th wedding anniversary and taking a postelection vacation.
“The overwhelming majority of Muslims, they want the same things that families here want,” Mr. Obama said in a taped appearance on the talk show. “They want opportunity, kids want an education, they want jobs, they want peace. But there are extremist strains that are there.”
The president has come under particular GOP criticism for not scheduling a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York this week. Mr. Netanyahu had criticized Mr. Obama for failing to set clear red lines that Tehran can’t cross in its nuclear work or risk facing U.S. and Israeli military action.
Senior U.S. officials say Mr. Obama has repeatedly rebuffed Mr. Netanyahu’s calls for such action, including in a direct phone call earlier this month. But Israeli leaders are hoping that the American leader will at least press the world body to prepare for more coercive actions against Iran, including a fifth round of U.N. Security Council economic sanctions, if Tehran doesn’t take concrete steps to slow its nuclear program. Mr. Obama is expected to say he believes there is still time to pursue diplomacy to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
“We hope this will be an opportunity for the president to highlight for world leaders the severity of the Iranian threat,” said an Israeli official attending the General Assembly.
Messrs. Obama and Netanyahu won’t be in New York at the same time. Secretary of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will meet Mr. Netanyahu later this week.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.) questioned Mr. Obama’s decision to make a daytime talk show appearance but not sit for meetings with foreign leaders at a time of unrest in a critical part of the world. “To me, it indicates a lack of willingness to lead in times of trouble,” Mr. Cantor said on a conference call with reporters.
While Mr. Romney has devoted the bulk of his stump speeches and campaign attacks to the economy, the Republican nominee and his allies have become increasingly critical of the Obama administration on foreign policy in recent weeks.
The shift of focus initially put Mr. Romney on the defensive, after he issued a controversial statement condemning the administration’s response to protests in Egypt while events were still in flux.
Afterward, some of Mr. Romney’s aides began to second guess whether they had made the right move as the Republican candidate faced intense blowback from Democrats and some conservatives who felt the campaign had moved too quickly to politicize the crisis.
Senior campaign staffers, including members of the foreign policy team and communications department, embarked on a series of internal discussions about whether they moved too fast or not, according to someone familiar with the conversation. Their primary take-away: The statement was a bold moment to contrast with the president, and they had been right to seize the opportunity.
Mr. Romney has since strengthened his attacks, although the foreign policy focus has expanded beyond the unrest in the Middle East to include China policy. Both campaigns began the week by intensifying their battle over China trade issues in an attempt to woo voters in the industrial Midwest, which includes critical battlegrounds states like Ohio.
The Romney campaign unveiled a new ad Monday accusing the president of not standing up to China on trade issues. In the latest spot, the Republican charges Mr. Obama with failing to protect American intellectual property rights and says the alleged failure resulted in two million American lost jobs.
The Obama campaign responded by releasing a memo citing nine trade-enforcement complaints the administration has filed against China with the World Trade Organization, including one the president announced last week in Ohio.
Both candidates are also set to address Tuesday the annual meeting of former President Bill Clinton’s foundation, the Clinton Global Initiative, where Mr. Obama may announce a new human trafficking initiative, according to people familiar with his speech.
—Colleen McCain Nelson and Sara Murray contributed to this article.
Credit to: Wall Street Journal