Obama steps up over freedom of speech
September 25th, 2012
07:20 PM ET

Obama steps up over freedom of speech

By Fareed Zakaria

Mitt Romney and his campaign feel that they have an opening in the presidential campaign, on foreign policy at least. The unrest in the Middle East the past couple of weeks, including the killing of the American ambassador to Libya and widespread protests over a controversial YouTube video that has been condemned as blasphemous, has left a general sense of turmoil in the region. The Romney campaign wants to take advantage of it.

On the surface, it seems like a reasonable idea. And Obama has made some missteps including the inexplicable decision to not meet with any foreign leaders this week during the U.N. General Assembly. But I don’t think it will work. And one need look no further than President Obama’s speech at the General Assembly to see why.

International events, even crises, typically help the president because they make him look, well, presidential. The symbolism of Obama delivering a speech at the United Nations will have been a powerful reminder to the public that Obama is the president and Mitt Romney is not. This in turn has the effect of conferring a certain gravitas on the incumbent.

The second reason why Romney is unlikely to be able to turn the current turmoil to his advantage, for now at least, is that Obama’s speech was very good. The president was able to play to his strengths in explaining events, placing them in a broader context, and acting as a kind of bridge to the rest of the world by explaining American concerns to an international audience while still showing an understanding of some of the international community’s worries.

But it was also a clever speech politically, as Obama was able to steal Republicans’ fire on two crucial issues.

Obama began the speech with an homage to Ambassador Chris Stevens, countering the claim that he was minimizing the death of the ambassador or viewed it as just a “bump” on the road. In addition, Obama defused the criticism of many conservative commentators by making a robust defense of freedom of speech. Bret Stephens' column in the Wall Street Journal, for example, was constructed as the speech Mitt Romney should be giving at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York this week – as it turns out, many of the key points in Stephens’ column were actually made by Obama.

Obama’s speech wasn’t just good politics – it was good policy. He reminded the world that people like Ambassador Stevens represent an element of U.S. foreign policy that is often forgotten – deep-rooted idealism and a desire to understand different countries and cultures. Stevens, who was a fluent Arabic speaker, was committed to treating the Libyan people as equals, and helping them better their own lives.

Similarly, Obama’s decision to robustly defend freedom of speech was exactly right. In most such crises in the past – the Koran burning, Danish cartoons – the U.S. government’s position (during both the Bush and Obama administrations) has typically been to condemn these acts or publications to show that we don’t denigrate Islam.

That’s fine, but it was high time that the president also said “Yes, we are appalled by this appalling video, but a core principle of free societies is that things don’t get banned just because we think they are appalling.” And by defending free speech and its constitutional sanctity, and urging the Arab World to be more tolerant, President Obama spoke truth to power in a way that was effective domestically, but also the right thing to say internationally.


soundoff (280 Responses)
  1. Taylor0202

    New, More Dangerous Hindu Extremist Groups Emerge in India

    Christians concerned as rightwing factions splinter to form militant outfits.
    PUNE, India, October 29 (CDN) — After more than a decade of severe persecution, India’s Christian minority is growing increasingly concerned over the mushrooming of newer and deadlier Hindu extremist groups.

    Gone are the days when Christians had to watch out only for the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) and its youth wing, Bajrang Dal, which are closely linked with the most influential Hindu extremist umbrella organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). With voter support faltering for the RSS’s political wing, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), moderate and extremist sections within the Hindu nationalist movement are blaming each other, and militant splinter groups have emerged.

    Claiming to be breakaway factions of the RSS, new groups with even more extreme ideology are surfacing. The Abhinav Bharat (Pride of India), the Rashtriya Jagran Manch (National Revival Forum), the Sri Ram Sene (Army of god Rama), the Hindu Dharam Sena (Army for Hindu Religion) and the Sanatan Sanstha (Eternal Organization) have launched numerous violent attacks on Christian and Muslim minorities.

    September 27, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Reply
  2. THE MEDIA LIES FOR OBAMA

    To all Liberals,
    Why do you guys rail against watching fox news????? WHERE else would you get the OTHER SIDE OF THE STORY???? What ever happened to getting both sides of a story (and there are ALWAYS 2 sides to a story) before coming to a conclusion???
    In my opinion, it is past the point of drinking the Kool-Aid. Anyone that does not see the bias (corruption) in the media is half blind and it's proven every time they bash anyone with the NERVE to hear the other side of the story. What a shame.
    I watch fox, cnn, msnbc, cbs, nbc, abc news and read extensively online and I'm quit AMAZED that the people are not outraged at the blatant bias in the media and the failures of our current silver tongue in chief.
    I challenge all liberals to watch fox news and at least LISTEN to the other side of the story instead of taking that time to bash me and others for watching fox news. If you do take up my challenge and still think this president walks on water, then we can at least agree to disagree.
    I make this challenge due to the fact that ALL liberals or democrats I speak with ADMIT they refuse to watch fox news lol wow. So, they completely bought into the narrative the democrats have instilled in them that fox news lies. Have you never thought to yourself, Hmm why wouldn’t they want me to watch that channel and ONLY that channel? Hint, THEY WILL TELL YOU THE OTHER SIDE OF THE STORY, WHICH IS NOT ALL PRO OBAMA.
    Please think for yourself and that’s impossible using one side of the story!!!!

    A DOOR KNOB COULD DO A BETTER JOB AS PRESIDENT THAN OBAMA (ESPECIALLY WITH THE MEDIA PROTECTING IT)

    September 28, 2012 at 11:13 am | Reply
  3. Beermidget

    Alex the Veteran: Freedom of speech? As long as it doesn't expose USA's true actions I guess. After the Wikileaks leader or not for exposing the truth?

    September 30, 2012 at 5:05 am | Reply
  4. Lost

    Hmmm.....deal with problems at home, or meddle with affairs abroad...decisions, decisions. A new chapter of responsible leadership is what the world needs. It is no longer or ever was the best idea to leap without looking at every angle...at every viewpoint, and irresponsible or hasty reactions will only deepen troubles at home and abroad. Wisdom, perseverence, and patience takes precedence. The old ways don't work because people aren't easily mislead anymore, and patriotism now comes with being informed....no more blind support...people crave the truth...and their lives depend upon it.

    Obama, Forever!

    September 30, 2012 at 8:45 pm | Reply
  5. MuckFohammad

    So Fareed thinks Obammy stepped up, eh? Does that mean that Obammy plagiarized part of his speech?

    October 1, 2012 at 11:48 pm | Reply
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