His expected campaign advantage on foreign-policy issues suddenly in doubt, President Obama at the United Nations on Tuesday portrayed the deaths of four Americans in Libya as a result of inflamed tensions over an anti-Islam movie produced in the U.S. rather than a terrorist attack aimed at his policies in dealing with the Arab Spring and Middle East unrest.
Although his administration in recent days acknowledged that the deaths of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three others were caused by a terrorist act on Sept. 11, Mr. Obama didn’t mention terrorism as the likely motive in front of an international audience at the U.N. General Assembly’s annual gathering. After referencing the killing of the ambassador, Mr. Obama focused much of his speech on promoting religious tolerance and free speech, blaming the film for provoking the anti-U.S. outbursts while saying there is never an excuse for violence.
“In every country, there are those who find different religious beliefs threatening; in every culture, those who love freedom for themselves must ask themselves how much they’re willing to tolerate freedom for others,” Mr. Obama said. “That is what we saw play out in the last two weeks, as a crude and disgusting video sparked outrage throughout the Muslim world.”
The White House has sparred in recent days with the campaign of GOP challenger Mitt Romney over whether the administration was too quick to condemn the U.S.-based makers of the film instead of the radical Islamic elements in the region who responded with violent protests that resulted in some 40 deaths across the region.
Mr. Obama also said there is “still time and space” to resolve the international impasse over Iran’s suspect nuclear programs, although “that time is not unlimited” for Tehran to make a deal.
He also said it is time for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down in the face of a raging popular revolt.
“Make no mistake: A nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained,” Mr. Obama said. “It would threaten the elimination of Israel, the security of Gulf nations and the unraveling of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.”
But Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who addresses the U.N. gathering Wednesday, sounded a defiant note in a meeting with reporters Monday, while Iranian military leaders in Tehran released details of a long-range drone and test-fired four anti-ship missiles in a prelude to upcoming naval war games planned in an apparent response to U.S.-led warship drills in the Persian Gulf.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon picked up on Mr. Obama’s warnings over Syria, telling world leaders that international action was needed to end the violence in the 18-month-old conflict that, he said, has become “a regional calamity with global ramifications.”
“The international community should not look the other way as violence spirals out of control,” Mr. Ban said.
Downplaying the role of terrorism in the Libya attack was yet another shift in Mr. Obama’s explanation for the violence. In the days after the assault, the administration blamed the reports of the anti-Islamic video. Then last week, U.S. officials began to acknowledge that the attack bore the signs of terrorism.
The Libyan prime minister said the attack on the U.S. Consulate in the Libyan city of Benghazi was planned, and the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence said there was reason to believe that al Qaeda or its affiliates carried out the killings.
Even on Monday, while taping a TV segment of “The View” in New York, Mr. Obama indicated that the Libyan attack was the work of terrorists.
“There’s no doubt that the kind of weapons that were used, the ongoing assault, that it wasn’t just a mob action,” Mr. Obama said.
The consulate was attacked during anti-U.S. protests that have roiled the Middle East over the past two weeks, calling into question Mr. Obama’s approach to foreign policy in the Muslim world.
The shifting reasons for the attack in Libya also highlighted a challenge for Mr. Obama in the presidential race, where he is presenting himself to voters as the experienced hand compared with Mr. Romney. At the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., this month, the president portrayed his Republican opponent as new to foreign policy.
Mr. Obama is under increasing criticism from the right over his handling of Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program and his perceived reluctance to give full-throated cooperation to Israel in stopping Iran from developing a weapon of mass destruction.
Mr. Romney, addressing former President Bill Clinton’s international foundation in New York earlier in the day, insisted again that the Benghazi attack was an act of terrorism. A spokeswoman for Mr. Romney’s campaign added that, more broadly, the president is failing to lead internationally.
“For nearly four years, President Obama’s foreign policy has left our closest allies alienated and our security threatened,” said Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul. “Instead of delivering a ‘new beginning’ with Iran, the president’s failed policies have allowed Iran to move closer toward nuclear-weapons capability. Our national security and allies in the Middle East can’t afford four more years like the last four years under President Obama. As president, Mitt Romney will ensure that Iran is never permitted to develop a nuclear-weapons capability.”
But Mr. Obama devoted the bulk of his speech to explaining his approach to the Muslim world in light of the widespread backlash against the U.S. He asked other cultures to accept the American principle of free speech while laying much of the blame for the violence on the “disgusting” video.
“I know there are some who ask why we don’t just ban such a video,” Mr. Obama said. “The answer is enshrined in our laws: Our Constitution protects the right to practice free speech. Here in the United States, countless publications provoke offense. Like me, the majority of Americans are Christian, and yet we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs.”
The president held himself up as an example of someone who shrugs off offensive commentary.
“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. “Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views — even views that we disagree with.”
He used the story of Mr. Stevens‘ life as the ideal of American foreign service and said other cultures should appreciate the diplomat’s commitment to improving the countries where he worked.
“I tell you this story because Chris Stevens embodied the best of America,” Mr. Obama said. “He acted with humility, but stood up for a set of principles — a belief that individuals should be free to determine their own destiny, and live with liberty, dignity, justice and opportunity.”
The president said leaders in every country have an obligation “to speak out forcefully against violence and extremism.”
“It is time to marginalize those who — even when not resorting to violence — use hatred of America, or the West, or Israel as a central principle of politics,” he said. “For that only gives cover, and sometimes makes excuses, for those who resort to violence. That brand of politics — one that pits East against West; South against North; Muslim against Christian, Hindu and Jew — cannot deliver the promise of freedom. Burning an American flag will do nothing to educate a child. Smashing apart a restaurant will not fill an empty stomach. Attacking an embassy won’t create a single job. That brand of politics only makes it harder to achieve what we must do together: educating our children and creating the opportunities they deserve; protecting human rights; and extending democracy’s promise.”
But his call for other countries to embrace American-style free-speech standards met with a mixed reaction from the gathering.
The foreign minister of Indonesia, home to the world’s largest Muslim population, said Mr. Obama’s speech was a “clarion call” for all nations to reject intolerance. He said it is “an issue that galvanizes all of us,” according to the Associated Press. But Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa added that freedom of expression should be exercised with consideration to morality and public order.
Dina Zakaria, a spokeswoman for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice political party, said cultural differences between the U.S. and the Muslim and Arab world over the limitations of freedom of expression will persist.
“No one can argue against freedom of expression, but the Western understanding of it is different from ours,” she said. “Will this freedom allow for contempt of religion? For us, it is different. For us, it is a red line as Muslims and Christians as well.”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.