[Story updated at 7:04 p.m.]
President Obama presented a vigorous defense of America's role in
the world at the United Nations Tuesday, saying the United States
always prefers diplomacy but will not flinch at taking military
action if the international community proves unable to address
pressing security challenges.
With his own threat to use force in Syria over the use of
chemical weapons still fresh and with the challenge of Iran's
nuclear program looming, Mr. Obama offered a spirited case that it
was the threat of force that got Syria diplomacy moving and that put
the intractable Syrian conflict on a path of possible political
And he insisted that America's unique ability to lead in
international affairs, as he termed it, serves both the US and the
"America must remain engaged for our own security," he said, "but
I also believe the world is better for it."
Acknowledging that some in the institution he was addressing
opposed the 2011 military intervention in Libya - a clear reference
to Russia, among others - Obama said it was very likely that,
without that use of external force, Libya would still be in a civil
war like Syria's, and former leader Muammar Qaddafi might still be
trying to "kill his way" to retaining power.
Obama's speech to the annual opening of the UN General Assembly,
the fifth of his presidency, was largely dedicated to the challenges
in the Middle East - remarkable considering the focus came from a
president who entered office in 2009 pledging to "rebalance" US
interests and priorities towards Asia. But the speech, which
dedicated 35 of its 45 minute to the Middle East, served as an
acknowledgment that a region he had hoped to shift away from will
remain the focus of American diplomacy for the remainder of his
"We will be engaged in the region for the long haul," he said.
Syria's civil war, Iran's nuclear ambitions, and Israeli-
Palestinian peace are the issues that the US and the international
community must address most urgently, Obama said - even as he cited
Egypt and the broad challenges presented by the Arab awakening as
requiring global attention as well.
On Syria, Obama demanded a "strong" Security Council resolution
to hold Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to his commitment to give
up Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles. Failure to do so, he said,
would reveal a UN incapable of "enforcing even the most basic of
But a chemical weapons agreement should be just the first step to
resolving the Syria crisis through diplomacy, he added. And although
Obama did not categorically restate his two-year-old insistence that
"Assad must go," he said the same thing in different words. A leader
who has gassed his own people "cannot regain the legitimacy to
govern his badly fractured country," he said.
He also called on Russia and Iran to recognize that insisting on
keeping Assad in power would only "lead to what they fear" in the
form of an extremist hotbed in Syria that destabilizes the region.
On Iran, Obama said decades of mistrust between Washington and
Tehran make "the diplomatic path" difficult, but he reiterated
America's preference to "resolve peacefully" the international
community's differences with Iran, including over its nuclear