"Syria has witnessed the killing of tens of thousands of people," he said. "The president of Egypt is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Our ambassador to Libya was assassinated in a terrorist attack. Iran is moving toward nuclear weapons capability. We somehow feel that we are at the mercy of events, rather than shaping events."
Obama also addressed the conference, as will Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and Libya's Mohammed Yussef Magariaf, whose new governments are being tested by the turmoil.
In his remarks to the annual conference organized by former President Bill Clinton, Obama emphasized work to curb human trafficking.
Obama focused his address to the Clinton Global Initiative on his administration's efforts to curb human trafficking. He announced an executive order strengthening prohibitions against U.S. tax dollars supporting human trafficking through contracts and more investigations into such crimes in the U.S. and abroad.
Human trafficking "must be called by its true name, modern slavery," Obama said. He said his message to oppressed people around the world is: "We see you, we hear you, we insist on your dignity."
With assistance from Indira A.R. Lakshmanan and Flavia Krause-Jackson.