President Obama pledged greater international cooperation from the U.S. under his administration, but also bluntly challenged fellow world leaders to take responsibility for genocide, poverty and terrorism during his debut speech at the United Nations General Assembly Wednesday.
Obama was followed by Libyan strongman Col. Moammar Kaddafy, who delivered a rambling and bizarre diatribe against the world body, claiming it treats small nations like his shabbily. At one point, Kaddafy said al Qaeda is not alone in promoting terrorism and said the UN's own Security Council "should be called the Terror Council."
In the evening, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave a speech that was sharply critical of the U.S. and Israel and prompted both the American and Canadian delegations to walk out in the middle of the talk.
Obama was applauded as he strode confidently to the podium, and early on acknowledged the anticipated change in U.S. policy his administration represents.
"I am well aware of the expectations that accompany my presidency around the world," Obama said. He said those hopes are not about him personally, but rooted in hopes America will be a leader in bringing about change. He said past criticism of the U.S. is due in part to misconceptions on the part of other nations, but also to past unilateral actions by the U.S.
Obama denounced the use of torture in interrogating terror suspects and pledged that America "will live its values, and we will lead by example."
But after acknowledging his nation's past failings, Obama challenged the rest of the world to step forward to fight terrorism, climate change and nuclear proliferation.
"Those who used to chastise America for acting alone in the world cannot now stand by and wait for America to solve the world's problems alone," Obama said. "Now is the time for all of us to take our share of responsibility."
Obama scolded rogue nations North Korea and Iran, saying that while he is committed to diplomacy, the two countries must drop their nuclear ambitions. If they do not live up to their obligations, "they must be held accountable," Obama said. Obama also pledged to help Israel and Palestine make peace, claiming that his discussion with the two nations' leaders on Tuesday brought about modest progress.
"All of us must decide whether we are serious about peace or we will only lend it lip service," Obama said. He said the U.S. must back its support of Israel with pressure that it respect Palestinian rights, and called on nations sympathetic to Palestine to stop feeding the flames of hatred with dangerous rhetoric.
Ahmadinejad countered Obama's speech by railing against Israel's "racist ambitions" and chastised European nations and the U.S. for unconditionally supporting what he called Israel's "inhuman policies." He also accused the U.S. of spreading "war, bloodshed , aggression, terror and intimidation" in the Middle East, mentioning Iraq and Afghanistan.
"How can crimes of the occupiers against defenseless women and children and destruction of their homes, farms, hospitals and schools be supported unconditionally by certain governments?" he said, speaking of Israel and its allies. "It is no longer acceptable that a small minority would dominate the politics, economy and culture of major parts of the world by its complicated networks, and establish a new form of slavery, and harm the reputation of other nations, even European nations and the U.S., to attain its racist ambitions."
Before Obama spoke, Brazilian Preisdent Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva took the podium to blame big nations and unbridled capitalism for most of the world's problems, including climate change and the worldwide economic collapse. Ahmadinejad spoke similarly, saying capitalism will eventually collapse like Marxism.
The Iranian leader also sounded a cooperative tone, saying his country would shake all hands "that are honestly extended to us," while respecting the nation's legal rights -- an assertion that some observers saw as a reference to Iran's nuclear program, which was not explicitly mentioned in the speech.
Kaddafy echoed Obama's calls for international cooperation in fighting common threats, including the swine flu, but then launched into a long and angry rant that the UN charter, which he waved around from the podium, is illegitimate.
"We are rejecting, and we shall never cooperate with the U.N. charter," Kaddafy said, complaining that the body was created by nations aligned against Germany and has allowed 65 wars to break out without taking action.
Obama began the day by meeting with Japan’s new Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. He will also speak with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, whose country has cheered Obama’s decision to scrap a missile defense program on its doorstep.
Tomorrow, Obama will become the first U.S. president to chair a U.N. Security Council meeting.