June 04, 2009
Obama in Cairo
Barack Obama’s speech today in Cairo was a significant feat of public diplomacy, if not a great speech for the ages, say one where myriad lines will be quoted in depth many score years from now. Nor will it change the course of history, or even perhaps, materially alleviate anytime soon the deep divides and suspicions that have caused such tensions between the Western and Muslim worlds of late. But it was a very honest speech, in the main, and a very serious speech, one that not infrequently flirted with a certain impactful majesty of spirit, with its almost youthful optimism and earnest sincerity. And so it is a speech that must be applauded as representing the better angels of our collective human strivings towards continued progress.
The speech was interrupted some forty times with applause, and this by an audience well pre-disposed to be skeptical and cautious, but how could they not on occasion show their enthusiasm? Here was Barack Hussein Obama deftly employing (and pronouncing quite well!) words and phrases that did not emit easily—if at all—from many of his predecessors’ lips: salaam aleikum, the Qur’an, peace be unto them, zakat (though as Roula Khalaf points out in the FT, there was a small glitch to this seeming fluency when he referred to the hijab as the "hajib"). And while Mr. Obama was careful to reinforce his Christian bona fides, there stood a man in Cairo whose own father was not only from that very continent, but also of Muslim lineage. Even with such a gifted speech-maker as this President, there are times when the symbolism of the moment itself—a young, charismatic African-American President of part Muslim ancestry showcasing dignified respect to his hosts on a grand, international stage--transfixes perhaps more than the actual words being spoken.
But there were many words too. The speech ran just a few minutes shy of an hour, not atypical for Obama, but not a short foray either. It had as its main substance and center-piece some seven issues that Obama announced to the Muslim world “we must finally confront together”. These issues, violent extremism, the Israeli-Palestinian issue, nuclear weapons, democracy, religious freedom, the rights of woman, and economic development, were book-ended by, at first, a scene-setting respectful ode to the host country and Islam, and to conclude, an impassioned cry for peaceful co-habitation among the world’s three great monotheistic faiths, that ‘we do unto others as we would have them do unto us’, this maxim eloquently described as “a belief that pulsed in the cradle of civilization, and that still beats in the hearts of billions”.
The early applause lines were perhaps obvious crowd-pleasers, but they were nonetheless highly effective in extending the hand of mutual respect and understanding. After the traditional greeting and mention of the Qu’ran, the next applause came when Obama allowed that Islam “carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment,” followed by more applause when Obama allowed that “Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality”. In short, the message was (put bluntly): we understand and appreciate your rich history and contributions to civilization, and that you are not all terrorist-abiding evil-doers. It is true that President George Bush had occasionally expressed such sentiments, notably at a Washington DC mosque not long after 9/11, but uttered by him the lines too often felt like bromides, place-holders, throw-aways, spoken by Obama, with more carefully chosen substance and specifics, the effect was realer, more dignified, even elegant.
The core content of the speech however contained no dramatic new policy directions. On the first issue of violent extremism (the word "terrorism" went purposefully unmentioned), the gathered listeners in Cairo were told we were going to well slog it out in Afghanistan (at times it felt as if almost in Pakistan too), a decision I believe the President will ultimately regret, even with his ballyhooed coalition of “forty-six countries" (sound familiar?). On Iraq an almost mea culpa like tone could be detected (of course on behalf of the prior Administration, and not his own), although Obama nonetheless stated he believed the “Iraqi people are ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein”. And, welcome as it is, it is not new news that he has outlawed torture, and ordered the shuttering of Dick Cheney’s noxious penitentiary in the ‘tropics’ of Guantanamo.
On the Arab-Israeli front, the content was reasonably predictable, but not necessarily boiler-plate either. It was note-worthy in itself that Israel-Palestine was the second issue Obama tackled (immediately after violent extremism), notably before the Iranian nuclear dossier. But this emphasis too is not new, by appointing a respected veteran like George Mitchell as Special Envoy, we well knew already that Obama realizes this issue is a paradigmatic one through the region that must be remedied if material, and sustainable, progress is to be made region-wide towards greater stability. Many on both sides of the conflict will be unhappy with aspects of this portion of the speech, Gazans who heard only of “humanitarian” challenges, and not the brutal carnage of a few short months ago, some Israelis on the settlements issue. There will also be some frustration that so-called ‘final status’ issues like Jerusalem and right of return were not discussed in any depth, but all told, and given the overall political realities this President faces, I found it a reasonably adroit balancing act, signaling he was intent to deliberately pursue a serious peace process (and so, for example, final status issues can be broached later after more preparatory work, though I'm far from sure this incremental approach is ideal, as it provides arguably too much opportunity to scuttle forward progress by varied spoilers), in sharp contrast to the deep bungling of this portfolio by the previous Administration. And if some might have felt rumblings of discomfort that discussion of ‘shooting rockets at sleeping children’ was too crudely aimed as a moral criticism of only one side (regarding Obama’s point about the surrender of moral authority), overall again, and given the growing tension of late between Tel Aviv and Washington, the middle-ground Obama forged was ultimately more an umpire-like demand, delivered in reasonably soothing, pragmatic, almost professorial tones (albeit with hints of admonishment), that both sides adhere better to the Road Map (no panacea, of course, but the Administration has yet to unveil dramatic new initiatives). We might have done well worse than that, at least as a starting point.
The discussion of Iran will cause much debate too, but it seemed to me to have been drafted with a good deal of conscientiousness, again with the overriding goal of showing mutual respect (interestingly, Obama used the phrase “played a role” both to discuss U.S. involvement in the Mossadegh coup, as well Iranian “acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians”). This parallelism I suspect was meant as tacit acknowledgment that both sides had committed acts causing anger and even revulsion to the other, but accompanied by a renewed offer to look forward, not backwards. And yet, the answer to Obama’s statement "I understand those who protest that some countries have weapons that others do not”, namely that he is “hopeful” that “all countries in the region” will “share in…[the] goal” of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, somehow I believe this will ring somewhat hollow in parts of Teheran. So the issue isn’t going to simply disappear, and again, no particularly new policy ground was broken here. Last, while it was in another part of the speech, Obama issued a powerful retort to much of Ahmadi-Nejad's blustery and cheap Holocaust rhetoric, a counter-point that will be further reinforced during his visit to Buchenwald tomorrow.
The speech risked meandering some after the ‘Big Three’ of, essentially, terrorism, Israel/Palestine and Iran, but even if at times one almost felt risking being subjected to an overly long laundry list a la State of the Union type addresses (digitize records, grow new crops, eradicate polio, science envoys, an entrepreneurship summit, and so on); there were still very effective lines interspersed within, as when Obama with subtleness ceased with the chest-beating American exceptionalism we far too often hear and spout, while still speaking legitimately to basic values of human dignity, stating that issues like the rule of law, equal administration of justice, transparency of Government, etc. were “not just American ideas, they are human rights," at which point the crowd peeled into its near thirtieth round of spontaneous applause.
In closing, after discussing the above mentioned seven issues, Obama painted his vision thus:
The issues that I have described will not be easy to address. But we have a responsibility to join together on behalf of the world that we seek -- a world where extremists no longer threaten our people, and American troops have come home; a world where Israelis and Palestinians are each secure in a state of their own, and nuclear energy is used for peaceful purposes; a world where governments serve their citizens, and the rights of all God's children are respected. Those are mutual interests. That is the world we seek. But we can only achieve it together.
Barack Obama speaks often of “mutual interests”. It is his inner Kennan, or Scowcroft. But this is no caricature of a cold-hearted realist looking solely at balancing state actors, reveling in Metternichian realpolitik. He has a passion for human improvement, a refined intellect, and high ideals. He speaks with eloquence, equanimity, and respect. Fundamentally, he is an optimist, one who looks forward (even if some of us wished he didn't quite so much on occasion). And so he really went to Cairo I think in his mind to help put a line under the past (arguably of course a conceit this is even achievable, but nonethless a laudable goal, particularly given some of the recent gross excesses of the Bush era), so as to beckon us to follow “God’s vision” that we “live together in peace,” in turn concluding his speech stating we make this our “work here on Earth.”
These are noble sentiments, but translated into the gritty environs and heavy baggage of this regional cauldron, they seem quite possibly quixotic and far-fetched. But we should allow ourselves at least enough faith to hope to be surprised by the results an Obama Administration might deliver. The President chose to go to Cairo too, ultimately, as a pragmatist, to extend a hand of mutual respect and comity in the very heart of the Arab Islamic world (after all, he could have given this speech in, say, Jakarta or Istanbul), so as to help ready the region to forge more fertile ground towards conflict prevention and resolution, all the while stressing the need for a collaborative approach. If there is much hard work ahead, I hope one can credit Obama this: he must know that poetical yearnings, even those purposefully crafted towards achievement of specific tactical objectives (such as short-term enhanced regional atmospherics), must nonetheless increasingly turn as the days pass to the hard decisions of actual governance and real-time crisis management. All this still awaits, but if an edict in this mine-field strewn arena might well be 'first, do no harm', this was accomplished by Obama today, even some good.
About Belgravia Dispatch
Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.
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