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Obama surprises with powerful U.N. speech on Middle East

Expectations for President Barack Obama's U.N. speech this morning could not have been lower.

Entering the last leg of his presidential reelection campaign, pundits predicted a speech aimed directly at the American electorate: He would denounce Iran, denounce Syria, uphold American commitments to Israel's security, and head straight for the door.

The president did indeed high-tail it after the speech. But he left behind one of his most affecting speeches on America's relations with the Arab world since Cairo -- and it was targeted directly at the world leaders sitting in the U.N. General Assembly audience.   "Understand that America will never retreat from the world," he said, noting that the flurry of anti-American protests that followed the circulation of a video mocking the Prophet Mohammed would not drive the United States from the Middle East.

Obama opened his speech by drawing a contrast between the fallen Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens -- who was killed in an attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, "the city he helped to save" -- and the forces of extremism who murdered him, three other American nationals, and an even larger number of Libyan security guards which offer nothing to the millions of Muslims seeking a better life and better leaders. "Chris Stevens embodied the best of America. Like his fellow Foreign Service officers, he built bridges across oceans and cultures," Obama said. "Burning an American flag will do nothing to educate a child.... Attacking an embassy won't create a single job."

The broader point of Obama's speech was to drive home the message that the region's new Islamic leaders, including Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy, must move more assertively to stem the tide of extremism or see it swallow up their achievements. In a remark that appeared directed at Morsy, Obama said 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."

In an interview with the New York Times on the eve of the U.N. General Assembly, Morsy had sharply criticized America's role in the Middle East, saying that U.S. support for generations of military dictatorships, and its backing of Israel, had fueled anti-American sentiment in the region.

Obama responded today that all leaders have "an obligation" to "speak out forcefully against violence and extremism" and marginalize those who "use hatred of America or the West, or Israel as a central principle of politics."

"A politics based only on anger -- one based on dividing the world between us and them -- not only sets back international cooperation, it ultimately undermines those who tolerate it," he added. "The impulse towards intolerance and violence may initially be focused on the West, but over time it cannot be contained."

Obama also took aim at the history of violent reactions across the Muslim world to offensive portrayals of Islam in the West, saying that while "we understand people take offense to this video ... there is no speech that justifies mindless violence."

"There is no video that justifies an attack on an embassy," said Obama. "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," he added. "Like me, the majority of Americans are Christian, and yet we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs."

"I expect that people are going to call me awful things every day, and I will defend their right to do so," he said. "We do so not because we support hateful speech, but because our founders understood that without such protections, the capacity of each individual to express their own views, and practice their own faith may be threatened."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

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