On the Cairo speech

On the Cairo speech

A few quick thoughts on President Obama’s Cairo speech.

Overall, Obama once again demonstrated his willingness and ability to wrestle with complex and difficult ideas in public. One of his hallmark features as a leader is to show respect for his listeners by appealing to their sense of reason. As he did in the “race” speech during the campaign, and in his Notre Dame speech on abortion, Obama acknowledged room for disagreement and contestation and showed that he understands and respects alternative views even when he does not share them. Yet there are also clear limits to his tolerance: the speech included a forthright rejection of violence, a reminder to his audience that his “first duty is to protect the American people” and that “al Qaeda killed 3,000 people on [9/11],” and a clear statement of the American commitment to basic human rights. In seeking a “new beginning,” he didn’t start with an act of appeasement.

I thought his handling of the Israel-Palestinian issue was clear and straightforward, He reaffirmed both the bedrock U.S. commitment to Israel’s existence and security and the necessity of an independent Palestinian state. He understands — even if others do not — that “this is in Israel’s interest, Palestine’s interest, America’s interest and the world’s interest.” He also rejected the poison of Holocaust denial and “vile stereotypes about Jews” in clear and direct language, and told his listeners that such beliefs helped prevent “the peace that the people of this region deserve.” I wish he had offered a few more specifics, but overall he handled this issue well.

He did not avoid the tricky issue of democracy and human rights — an especially delicate subject in Egypt — but he left a lot of wiggle room by saying “there is no straight line to realize this promise.” And while his focus on women’s rights isn’t likely to endear him to some Islamists, he was right to include it, for it is a fundamental issue that is bound to play a major role in the years to come.

His discussion of nuclear weapons acknowledged the current double standard “that some countries have [nuclear weapons] while others do not,” and tried to square that circle by referring to “America’s commitment to seek a world in which no nations hold nuclear weapons.” This was less convincing — at least to me — but at least Obama acknowledged the contradictions in the U.S. position.

What was more significant was his statement but that “any nation — including Iran — should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.” The big question: does “the right to access” mean control of the full fuel cycle (under full NPT safeguards, including the Additional Protocol), or does it merely mean one of the various proposals that would deny Iran control of the full fuel cycle but provide nuclear fuel via some sort of international consortium? If it’s the latter, there’s no deal possible; if the former, it is at least conceivable that a deal that kept Iran from building a nuclear weapon might still be negotiated. We’ll see.

The truest thing he said? “No single speech can eradicate years of mistrust.” But he has committed himself to a set of principles and policies in front of the entire world. And if you think that “audience costs” (both domestic and foreign) matter, it will be hard for him to backtrack on the commitment to get out of Iraq on schedule, to leave Afghanistan as quickly as possible, to make significant changes in nuclear weapons policy, and to focus like a laser beam on the Middle East peace process. He’s committed his administration in public, and that means he (and the country) will pay a bigger price if he doesn’t follow through.

Now he needs to follow up words with deeds. And so do his listeners.