Shadow Government

From one Cairo speech to another

By Christian Brose Watching President Obama’s speech today in Cairo was like déjà vu all over again for me. I played a part in that other Cairo speech, and today brought back memories of how exciting an event like this is, how taxing it can be on those involved (I was sick and borderline hallucinatory ...

By Christian Brose

Watching President Obama’s speech today in Cairo was like déjà vu all over again for me. I played a part in that other Cairo speech, and today brought back memories of how exciting an event like this is, how taxing it can be on those involved (I was sick and borderline hallucinatory back four years ago), and how a U.S. motorcade can grind traffic in Cairo to an absolute halt. I remember seeing one furious driver standing beside his car shaking his fist at us as we whizzed by back in 2005. Hearts and minds, hearts and minds…

As a kind of veteran of Cairo speeches, I give Obama mostly high marks, bearing in mind what the speech was supposed to be. It was gauzy sentiment, expressions of principle, on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand ecumenism, gestures of courtship, sweet nothings, and some harmless pandering — and that is what it needed to be. The context for Obama’s Cairo speech was quite different than Rice’s Cairo speech. A lot happened in the past four years. Whether you think recent U.S. policy was necessary or not, we can all agree that it was unpopular, that it produced tension and mistrust. A speech won’t resolve that of course, but any president at this moment would want to try to clear the air a bit and signal a fresh start (even if the policies are often similar). And Obama did that without really rubbing anyone’s nose in it. As for whether this was more of his "apology tour," well, Rice told her audience in Cairo that, for 60 years, the U.S. government sided with autocrats over democrats for the sake of stability, and failed to achieve it. That’s an apology if ever there were one, and it was effective. Soft power has its limits, but also its purposes.

Ambrose Bierce once called diplomacy "the patriotic art of lying for one’s country." Obama, instead, committed himself to "speak the truth as best he can." Which he did, sort of. He spoke truths, but not particularly hard ones: The United States is not at war with Islam. We’re not an empire either, and we don’t want to be in Iraq forever. Democracy and human rights are great things. So is freedom of religion. Women have rights too, and deserve education. We’ll engage with everyone respectfully, at least the ones who renounce violence first. A world without nuclear weapons is a great goal, especially if it includes Iran. Israelis and Palestinians both have legitimate concerns, but also urgent responsibilities — essentially what’s been in the Roadmap for years: renouncing and fighting violence for Palestinians, and freezing settlements for Israelis.

You could call this truth-telling. You could also call it difference-splitting. Either way, none of it is really earth-shattering, but it’s what Obama had to do, and he did it with his characteristic thoughtfulness and gravitas.

Still, I can’t help but feel frustrated that I’ve been watching Obama closely for more than two years now, and after an hour-long speech in Cairo today, I still don’t have a clear read of which way he’ll come down on the looming hard decisions for which there is no middle ground, try as he may to carve some out. He talked about violent extremist groups and democratic elections. Well, Hezbollah is about to win one (partly) in a few days. Then what? He talked about democracy and the non-linear path that it often takes. Well, I’m not sure where on that path the Egyptian or Saudi governments are, and surely today’s speech won’t stop them from imprisoning peaceful dissidents, and worse. So, then what? How hard will Obama strain those relationships for the sake of human rights, if at all? Will he then speak some truth to our authoritarian friends about how America’s support for democracy is being harmed by their abuse of their people? Or for that matter, how hard will Obama push his own Congress and State Department to restore the funding that was recently cut for democratic reformers in Egypt? He also talked about the war in Afghanistan, which may very well get worse before the new commanders, troops, civilians, and resources can make it better over the coming year, and many in Obama’s own party may start heading for the door. Then what? I have no idea. 

Today’s speech in Cairo wasn’t the time to get into plans and specifics, but that time is coming. It’s a truism to say that rhetoric can’t solve all or even most problems, and that actions matter most. Well, some really unpleasant realities are about to intrude on this "new beginning." And as the last several years have shown, reality has a nasty habit of stinking up the place. For all the things Obama needed to say (and that I support him saying) to his Muslim audience today, I as an American am still left with more questions than answers.

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