Jerusalem - With a respectful but forceful tone, President Obama did what he does best in Cairo – he educated the public about the problems that we face in a way that was intellectually grounded, empathetic, and clear. If you consider the audience that President Obama was appealing to, his speech was a homerun in that it opened the door with large silent majorities for relationships based upon mutual interests.
The Cairo speech, dubbed “A New Beginning” was a policy overview of US interests in the Muslim World wrapped in a cultural overture to people of Islamic faith. President Obama quoted from the Koran and he used the language of the moment, beginning his speech with “Salaam Aleykum,” and dabbling in other cultural niceties, such as saying “peace be upon them” when referring to Islam’s prophets.
Beyond the culturally respectful framework, the speech was a clear and unapologetic overview of America’s priorities and interests amid the tangle of varying problems in the Muslim World. The President focused on seven issues: confronting extremism in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq; the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; Iran and nuclear weapons; democracy; religious freedom; women’s rights; and economic development and opportunity. With all of these issues, the President neither pandered nor preached. He explained US positions and intentions truthfully and eloquently while also clearing a path for cooperation with those who seek to partner in solutions.
I found seven points especially noteworthy in the President’s speech:
1) On the issue of confronting extremism, President Obama took on the conspiracy theorists. His stark description of al Qaeda’s actions as related to 9/11 and his delivery of the statement that, “These are not opinions to be debated; these are facts to be dealt with” was very strong. There are still many throughout the Muslim World who refute al Qaeda’s responsibility for the 9/11 attacks, and lay blame elsewhere, particularly with Israel and the Mossad.
2) President Obama implicitly acknowledged the mistakes of the Iraq war and the torture of detainees, but he did not offer apologies. This was important for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that to apologize to this audience would be to accept a false linkage concerning the Muslim World. Apologies are issued to the people who were wronged, whether by direct actions or by actions undertaken in their name. The audience at Cairo University or watching in Bangladesh or Indonesia may be outraged observers on these issues, but they don’t deserve an apology any more than a Catholic in Rome or a Hindu in Bombay.
3) Obama was masterful in expressing empathy for Israelis and for Palestinians. Similar to his comments on 9/11, his words on the Holocaust and the tone in which he delivered them were important to deflating conspiracy theories. Given Obama’s personal story and achievement, it can’t be emphasized enough what a unique messenger he is to the Muslim World, but also to the developing world. Obama has a credibility and authenticity to him that will allow many people to accept his well-constructed arguments as an authoritative source. On issues such as this one, as well as religious freedom and women’s rights, he can lead a revolution in thinking.
In addition, by raising Israeli settlements – though his actual language does not make clear whether settlements or settlement building needs to stop, a big difference – and speaking to the details of occupation, the President did something important vis-à-vis Hamas. He recognized Hamas as part of the Palestinian political spectrum and called on them to take on their responsibilities. Contrary to the wishes of many, Hamas is not a foreign usurper who will melt away. They have true local support and they will have to be integrated into any future Palestinian political framework to some degree for a Palestinian state and a peace agreement to be possible. By alluding to Palestinian unity, Obama spoke to the issue that is most important to Palestinians today.
4) On the point of supporting democracy, it was no accident that the President thanked his hosts, the Egyptian people. He mentioned al-Azhar, Cairo University, and the “timeless city” itself. He did not mention President Mubarak – a departure from protocol and a clear message. There was a lot of concern about President Obama’s choice of locations for this speech given the Egyptian government’s human rights record and almost three decades of emergency rule. This omission was as strong as any of his words on governance, human rights, religious freedom, and women’s rights.
5) Obama’s points on economic development and opportunity as well as education and women’s empowerment were significant. For Americans watching the speech, this is the area where we can come forward as unofficial ambassadors to contribute to the “new beginning” and to work on the human development issues that are the root of many of the problems that the President raised. President Obama put out some general ideas as well as some hefty commitments from women’s education to science to health issues. As is the case with the other policy points, there will have to be follow-up with programming and initiatives to make these commitments whole. As important, Americans will have to step forward to participate in these programs and to offer their time, efforts, and expertise.
6) If I were a Hindu or Buddhist watching this speech, I would feel left out to the point of being offended. The President referred to “non-Muslims” in the speech, but given the great efforts he made to weave together a common cloth of the three monotheistic religions, the exclusion of non-monotheist religions in the religious freedom section of the speech was glaring. The genocide in Darfur, the India-Pakistan relationship, and the treatment of third country nationals in the Gulf, in particular, are all areas that demonstrate a need for greater religious freedom and tolerance in the Muslim World.
7) Lastly, the speech did not contain a foreign policy bombshell. To many people around the world, Barack Obama appears to be a grand departure from previous U.S. leadership. Certainly, in some ways he is very different. But he is not a revolutionary in the sense that some in the Muslim World were hoping for. The United States isn’t going to assume the historic burden of guilt for western colonialism, transfer wealth from North to South, abandon our relationship with Israel, nor seriously consider the liturgy of populist leaders whose logic is based in schemes and conspiracies. If that wasn’t clear before, it is today.
Yesterday’s speech in Cairo was an overture to America’s world “base.” President Obama spoke to the silent majority of fence sitters – the people who are deciding how they feel about America and how they feel about their own involvement in their communities. Since World War II, and especially after the fall of the Soviet Union, America has been the world’s leader. Over the last eight years though, people throughout the Muslim World and the developing world have begun to ask questions like: is America still worth listening to and partnering with? Will America help me improve my life and my community? And significantly, is America a just power?
From the text of the speech to its delivery to the messenger himself, President Obama gave Muslims around the world reasons to answer “yes” to these questions and to be willing to judge the United States and Americans by our future actions on these outlined issues. In that regard, more important than anything President Obama said will be turning his words to deeds and his policy statements and plans into actual accomplishments. President Obama earned America a “new beginning” yesterday with that base of fence sitters, but it is up to all of us – at home and abroad, in government and within civil society – to do something with that beginning and not to squander this moment.