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Obama denounces violence in Middle East, calls for tolerance and democracy


THE UNITED NATIONS -- President Barack Obama today urged Arab nations undergoing radical changes to commit to democracy and tolerance, which he said were not exclusively American or Western values but ones to which all successful nations must adhere.

He made his speech here at the United Nations General Assembly against a backdrop of spiking violence in the Middle East and a domestic election with a newfound focus on foreign policy.

On Tuesday, President Obama spoke to the United Nations general assembly in an emotional speech about the recent violence against Americans. NBC's Chuck Todd reports.

Standing in front of the Assembly's familiar green marble, the president condemned the violent reaction across several Arab nations to a video featuring the prophet Mohammed that led to the deaths of U.S. ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three others.

But he said that in order to end such bloodshed, new leaders must support the principles of freedom and self-determination, which Obama called “universal values” -- no matter how tempting the thought of clamping down on protests or funneling anger towards a foreign target.

President Obama addresses the United Nations General Assembly, spotlighting the Arab Spring's impact while calling on world leaders to resist the temptations of cracking down on dissidence and harboring extremists.

“True democracy -- real freedom -- is hard work,” he said. “Those in power have to resist the temptation to crack down on dissent. In hard economic times, countries may be tempted to rally the people around perceived enemies, at home and abroad, rather than focusing on the painstaking work of reform.”

The president, who has been criticized by Republican presidential opponent Mitt Romney for not responding to the protests against the video forcefully enough, noted that real change would not come just through putting “more guards in front of an embassy or to put out statements of regret.”

He added that leaders must respect freedom of speech, noting that while millions of Americans took offense to the anti-Muslim video, censuring such expression would be futile in today’s information age, and responding with violence was unacceptable.

“In 2012, at a time when anyone with a cell phone can spread offensive views around the world with the click of a button, the notion that we can control the flow of information is obsolete. The question, then, is how we respond. And on this we must agree: There is no speech that justifies mindless violence."

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And Obama said that just as all nations should respect Muslim traditions, the inverse must also be true.

“The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam. Yet to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see when the image of Jesus Christ is desecrated, churches are destroyed, or the Holocaust is denied.”

He continued, quoting Gandhi: ‘Intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit,’” he said, garnering applause at the last line.

Don Emmert / AFP - Getty Images

President Barack Obama delivers his address during the 67th United Nations General Assembly meeting August 25 at the United Nations in New York.

As he prescribed broad solutions for the entire Middle East, the president also gave his vision for specific conflict-ridden countries, though he did not offer any new policies or changes to existing ones.

Obama said he was committed to stopping Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. “The United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” he said.

And he repeated his call for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to step down, one year after he stood before the same assembly to urge U.N. Security Council sanctions against the country, which members China and Russia are still blocking.

He also reaffirmed his vision for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “The road is hard but the destination is clear -- a secure, Jewish state of Israel; and an independent, prosperous Palestine.”

While the president shied away from overtly political rhetoric, he did tout what he perceives as his accomplishments in foreign policy, an area seen as his strong suit but one which Romney has been increasingly critical.

“The war in Iraq is over, and our troops have come home. We have begun a transition in Afghanistan, and America and our allies will end our war on schedule in 2014. Al Qaeda has been weakened and Osama bin Laden is no more. Nations have come together to lock down nuclear materials, and America and Russia are reducing our arsenals.”

And the president urged listeners to put aside “political debates” and focus not on what divides the world but unites it.

“When you strip that all away, people everywhere long for the freedom to determine their destiny; the dignity that comes with work; the comfort that comes from faith; and the justice that exists when governments serve their people -- and not the other way around,” he said.

“The United States of America will always stand up for these aspirations, for our own people, and all across the world.”