Obama rebukes Ahmadinejad for 'offensive' U.N. speech

President Barack Obama tells the United Nations that the global economy has been "pulled back from the brink of depression."
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 24, 2010; 12:11 PM

UNITED NATIONS - President Obama sharply criticized Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Friday for suggesting in an address to the U.N. General Assembly that the United States played a role in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Obama called the remarks "offensive" and "hateful."

In an interview with the BBC's Persian service, which broadcasts directly to the Iranian public, Obama said of Ahmadinejad's speech Thursday: "It was offensive. It was hateful."

According to an excerpt of the interview released by the White House, Obama added: "And particularly for him to make the statement here in Manhattan, just a little north of Ground Zero, where families lost their loved ones, people of all faiths, all ethnicities who see this as the seminal tragedy of this generation, for him to make a statement like that was inexcusable."

In his own address to the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday, Obama outlined a leading role for the United States in promoting human rights and democracy around the world, laying out a new foreign policy initiative that his advisers said will guide his diplomacy in the years ahead.

Making his second annual speech before the world body, Obama spoke more directly than he has previously about the importance of human rights and democracy in ensuring a stable world economy and global security. His words evoked those of his predecessor, George W. Bush, whose emphasis on promoting democracy once drew Obama's criticism.

The speech marked a shift in emphasis for Obama, who early in his presidency appeared to play down the importance of human rights and democracy in foreign policy, focusing instead on the "mutual interests" of nations in promoting U.S. economic and national security goals. The administration's attempts to promote human rights discreetly have been criticized as ineffective.

Obama's democracy agenda, as one adviser called it, will seek to encourage economic and political reforms carried out from within countries, namely through civil society groups that the administration intends to strengthen.

The approach contrasts with the Bush administration's "freedom agenda," which went beyond supporting grass-roots efforts to include direct outside influence on oppressive governments through regime change resolutions, sharp rhetoric, and, in the case of Iraq, an invasion.

"Part of the price of our own freedom is standing up for the freedom of others," Obama told the hundreds of delegates and audience members who filled the General Assembly hall for his remarks. "That belief will guide America's leadership in this 21st century."

Elliott Abrams, deputy national security adviser for human rights and democracy under Obama's predecessor, praised the speech but questioned whether the administration would pressure important partners to address the issue.

"This was his best rhetoric yet on the subject, but according to the White House fact sheet they appear to believe they are doing all they need to do," Abrams said. "That is unfortunate, because it means the gap between rhetoric and reality will only grow."

Abrams said the Obama administration has not stressed human rights "where it counts - in our bilateral relations." Multilateral actions are much less important, he said, so "with Russia, China, Egypt, the pressure seems to be off, despite today's rhetoric. And dictators can sense that very fast."

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