Obama’s Tough Tour de Force in Cairo

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Nick neatly synthesized Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo, noting that the president tossed hard truths at key parties involved in relations between the West and the Muslim world. At CQPolitics.com, I provided my own analysis:

President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo on relations between the West and the Muslim world was a tour de force. Watch it; read it. (My colleague Nick Baumann lists the nine hard truths in the speech.) But this episode is a reminder that a speech is composed of two elements: the words and the person delivering them. Look at this portion of the address:

Now, make no mistake: We do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan. We see no military — we seek no military bases there. It is agonizing for America to lose our young men and women. It is costly and politically difficult to continue this conflict. We would gladly bring every single one of our troops home if we could be confident that there were not violent extremists in Afghanistan and now Pakistan determined to kill as many Americans as they possibly can. But that is not yet the case.

…Today, America has a dual responsibility: to help Iraq forge a better future — and to leave Iraq to Iraqis. And I have made it clear to the Iraqi people — (applause) — I have made it clear to the Iraqi people that we pursue no bases, and no claim on their territory or resources

It is not hard to imagine George W. Bush, as president, saying those same words. Yet millions of people at home and abroad would not have believed his claim to have no interest in sustaining a US military presence in Afghanistan, Iraq or anywhere else. Why? Well, if you don’t know, you slept through the first eight years of this century. The fine words that Bush did frequently speak about promoting democracy abroad and protecting the world from tyrants and terrorists were undermined by his misrepresentations of the actual threats (see WMDs in Iraq) and his actions (see rushing to war in Iraq when the UN weapons inspections process was under way and working).

Obama has no such baggage. More important, he is willing to acknowledge US errors:

Just as America can never tolerate violence by extremists, we must never alter or forget our principles. Nine-eleven was an enormous trauma to our country. The fear and anger that it provoked was understandable, but in some cases, it led us to act contrary to our traditions and our ideals. We are taking concrete actions to change course. I have unequivocally prohibited the use of torture by the United States, and I have ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed by early next year.

That enhances his credibility. It’s harder for America’s critics in the Muslim world and elsewhere to depict the United States as an egocentric, self-interested empire, if the nation’s leaders occasionally concede fault (even if it’s only the fault of their predecessors). Conservatives hate this and have mocked Obama for going on an “apology tour.” But arrogance does not enhance security. Humility might actually be good for the country’s security.

Obama also helped his case by equal-handedly showing tough love for the Israelis (“It is time for these settlements to stop”) and Palestinians (“It is a sign neither of courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus”). After the speech, I heard one veteran Lebanese journalist say that this was the first time a US president had truly placed the suffering of the Israelis and the Palestinians on the same level. That, too, will boost US credibility.

Obama was not kowtowing to Arab and Muslim governments. As Bush repeatedly did, he called for democratic reforms in Muslim countries ruled by autocrats. (How Obama will pursue this in policy terms remains a tricky matter.) He blasted the religious intolerance of Muslim fundamentalists. He urged equal rights and opportunity for women in Muslim nations. (Again, figuring out how to push for this will be difficult. What did Obama say to the Saudi king on this issue?)

But if by giving a speech, a president could press a reset button, Obama came close. His personal history, his non-Bushness, his recognition of US errors, his willingness to at least talk as if he wants to be an honest broker in the Mideast–all this gives him a shot at success in this profound and historic undertaking: defusing a clash of civilizations.

Toward the end of his speech, Obama said,

It’s easier to start wars than to end them. It’s easier to blame others than to look inward. It’s easier to see what is different about someone than to find the things we share. But we should choose the right path, not just the easy path. There’s one rule that lies at the heart of every religion — that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. (Applause.) This truth transcends nations and peoples — a belief that isn’t new; that isn’t black or white or brown; that isn’t Christian or Muslim or Jew. It’s a belief that pulsed in the cradle of civilization, and that still beats in the hearts of billions around the world. It’s a faith in other people, and it’s what brought me here today.

We have the power to make the world we seek, but only if we have the courage to make a new beginning, keeping in mind what has been written.

There’s no telling if Obama’s approach will work–though it seems a good bet he will not make relations between the West and the Muslim world any worse than they have become. He has embraced a tough task. Ultimately, he is calling for universal acceptance of a relativistic, ecumenical, multicultural view of human nature and the world. And there are fundamentalists on both sides of this divide who want none of that.

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