My first take on The Speech

President Obama’s speech today in Cairo met the bar he set for himself.  In an address modeled after the Philadelphia speech on race, he forewent soaring oratory in favor of a thoughtful, nuanced and challenging reflection on America’s relations with the Muslims around the world (not “the Muslim world”, which for some reason became a ...


President Obama’s speech today in Cairo met the bar he set for himself.  In an address modeled after the Philadelphia speech on race, he forewent soaring oratory in favor of a thoughtful, nuanced and challenging reflection on America’s relations with the Muslims around the world (not “the Muslim world”, which for some reason became a major issue in American punditry over the last few days).  As he frankly recognized, no one speech can overcome the many problems he addressed.  But this speech is an essential starting point in a genuine conversation, a respectful dialogue on core issues. After the initial rush of instant commentaries and attempts to inflame controversy pass, it should become the foundation for a serious, ongoing conversation which could, as the President put it, “remake this world.”

Before I get into the substance of the speech, a few preliminary notes. 

First, Obama made an admirable effort to speak a few words in Arabic, even if he mangled the pronunciations (hajib instead of hijab, al-Azhar). As anyone who has traveled abroad knows, a little effort learning local languages signals respect and goes a long way.  He also effectively interspersed quotes from the Quran, without it being too obtrusive — I would have liked to have seen some bits from the great Islamic philosophers, but oh well. 

Second, the rollout of the speech already stands as one of the most successful public diplomacy and strategic communications campaigns I can ever remember — and hopefully a harbinger of what is to come.  This wasn’t a one-off Presidential speech.  The succession of statements (al-Arabiya interview, Turkish Parliament, message to the Iranians) and the engagement on the Israeli-Palestinian policy front set the stage.  Then the White House unleashed the full spectrum of new media engagement for this speech — SMS and Twitter updates, online video, and online chatroom environment, and more.  This will likely be followed up upon to put substance on the notion of this as a “conversation” rather than an “address” — which along with concrete policy progress will be the key to its long-term impact, if any. 

 Third, I am going to refrain from commenting on the Arab response for now.  That will take a few days, at least, to unfold.  The usual suspects will appear on the media, and some will have valuable things to say, but I want to wait to see the talk shows on the major TV stations, op-eds, forums, blogs, and more.  A cautionary note, though — English-language Egyptian blogs are likely to be a particularly poor initial “focus group” for  judging the response.  But listening to the response and engaging in the debate which emerges will be key, for American officials and for the American public.  Because Obama’s address sought to reframe the conversation, we won’t know whether it succeeds until we see how the subsequent political debate unfolds.

OK, now to the speech itself.   This was a challenging, thoughtful speech which will be picked at and discussed for a long time.  It wasn’t as revolutionary as some might have hoped, but that’s not surprising — the ground is so well-trodden that it would have been astonishing to see something genuinely new.  Instead, it struck me as a thoughtful reflection and invitation to conversation, with some important nuance which might easily be missed.  It was neither “just like Bush” nor a total departure from past American rhetoric.    I will only focus here on some of the most interesting and important aspects from my perspective — and I have intentionally not read any other commentary or talked to anyone about it, in order to keep my own impressions fresh for now. 

Violent Extremism.  Obama’s lengthy early discussion of violent extremism was politically necessary, if a bit excessive — the most Bush-like part of the speech in some ways, but not others.   He made clear the reality of the threat posed by al-Qaeda and invoked 9/11 to provide context for American efforts in Afghanistan. But crucially, without drawing attention to it, he pointedly did not refer to a “Global War on Terror.”   He took care, as in his Turkey address, to correctly placed the challenge on the marginal fringe of Islam: 

“The enduring faith of over a billion people is so much bigger than the narrow hatred of a few. Islam is not part of the problem in combating violent extremism – it is an important part of promoting peace.” 

This deflates rather than exaggerates the threat, while still taking it seriously — his lengthy discussion of violent extremists should reassure skeptics who feared he would ignore it, but hopefully without dominating and driving out the other messages.  Throughout the speech he took care to present a vision for a convergence between the values, interests and aspirations of those vast majorities.   Such a convergence must not be held hostage to those few violent extremists, he made clear, while also forcefully repeating that those extremists will be combatted.  He did well to insist that the U.S. was changing course on deviations from its ideals — torture, Guantanamo — without belaboring the point. All of this was fine, similar to the Turkey speech, and was what needed to be said.  

It worries me, though, to hear him say that the U.S. must remain in Afghanistan and Pakistan until “we [can] be confident that there [are] not violent extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan determined to kill as many Americans as they possibly can.”  By that standard, U.S. troops probably can never leave… but that’s a topic for another day. But he did very well to point out firmly that the U.S. had no aspirations for bases in either Afghanistan or Iraq, and that “America has a dual responsibility: to help Iraq forge a better future – and to leave Iraq to Iraqis.”

Israelis and Palestinians.   I’m still struggling to grapple with this truly astonishing portion of his speech.  I don’t think I have ever heard any American politician, much less President, so eloquently, empathetically, and directly equate the suffering and aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians. This is the one part which I have to quote:  

Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust. Tomorrow, I will visit Buchenwald, which was part of a network of camps where Jews were enslaved, tortured, shot and gassed to death by the Third Reich. Six million Jews were killed – more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, ignorant, and hateful. Threatening Israel with destruction – or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews – is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.

On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations – large and small – that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.

For decades, there has been a stalemate: two peoples with legitimate aspirations, each with a painful history that makes compromise elusive. It is easy to point fingers – for Palestinians to point to the displacement brought by Israel’s founding, and for Israelis to point to the constant hostility and attacks throughout its history from within its borders as well as beyond. But if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth: the only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.

This is quite possibly the most powerful statement of America’s stake in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the urgent need for justice on both sides that I have ever heard.  He posed sharp challenges to Israelis and Palestinians alike, directly addressing the realities of Palestinian life under occupation and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza while also empathizing with Israeli fears.  He positioned the U.S. as the even-handed broker it needs to be:  “America will align our policies with those who pursue peace, and say in public what we say in private to Israelis and Palestinians and Arabs.” Left unsaid, but clearly in the background, was the fact that he has been matching those words with deeds by forcefully taking on the issue of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.  

He also offered a powerful analogy to the American civil rights campaign and other global experiences to argue that “that violence is a dead end. It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered.”  I really like this analogy, which he extended well beyond America’s shores. Some Palestinians will likely complain, though, that their own attempts at non-violent activism too often get crushed beneath Israeli bulldozers.  How will the U.S. and the international community support such non-violent action and redeem such moral authority?  

Iran and “Resistance”. The section on Iran was artful, though not as exceptional as some other parts of the speech.  He did well to offer to move beyond the past and to offer a way forward, but with few new details about that course. The key may be not in the comments on nuclear weapons or even on the offer of dialogue, but in this line:   “The question, now, is not what Iran is against, but rather what future it wants to build.”  This seems to be a nod to the reframing which I have been urging for months now:  challenging the “Resistance” narrative which has increasingly dominated regional discourse.  This reading is reinforced by an essential absence:  the whole notion of a new cold war of “moderate states” confronting “radical states” — the regional alliance against Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah advocated by the Bush administration, the Israeli government, and certain Arab leaders such as Hosni Mubark — was totally absent from the speech. While Obama did not confront the Resistance narrative directly, his entire speech sought to challenge it in practice — offering partnership, declining to endorse the old lines of division or attempt to rally those forces in a new conflict, and challenging all sides to articulate what they are for rather than what they are against.  

Democracy.   Many people have worried that Obama would not address issues of human rights and democracy in the speech.  He certainly did not offer a Bush/Rice style grand call for democratic transformation of the region — but, it again has to be noted, those grand calls for democratic transformation accomplished virtually nothing and had been abandoned within a year.  It’s not like Bush left a legacy of active democratization which Obama is supposedly abandoning.  Rather than repeat the old buzzwords to please those invested in the democracy promotion industry, Obama did something more important by addressing head on some of the most vexing issues which have plagued American thinking about democracy in the region. This, to my eye, was the key statement: 

America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments – provided they govern with respect for all their people. 

As I noted yesterday, that suggests clearly that the U.S. will accept the democratic participation of peaceful Islamist movements as long as they abstain from violence –and respect their electoral victories provided that they commit to the democratic process.  He made a passionate defense of that latter point, that victors must demonstrate tolerance and respect for minorities and that elections alone are not enough.  But he clearly did not prejudge participants in the electoral game — the old canard about Islamists wanting “one man, one vote, one time” thankfully, and significantly, did not appear.  

Liberalism and Faith. Finally, Obama offered a genuinely challenging reformulation of how to think about religion in public life: “We cannot disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretence of liberalism.”  There’s a lot packed into that simple statement, which I think gets to the heart of the hypocrisies and bad faith of much of the Western public discourse about Islam (particularly, but by no means exclusively, on the right).  He defended the right of Muslim women to wear the hijab if they so choose, while passionately defending their right to education and to full participation in public life.  And this links back to his lengthy, forthright discussion with which he began his speech: “Islam is a part of America.”  Too often, an idealized, supposedly secular America is juxtaposed against religious Islamic countries — but the America where I live is one filled with religious people of all faiths who bring that faith into the public realm on a daily basis for better or for worse.   Recognizing that reality, and how the U.S. has and has not successfully managed the tensions between liberalism and religion, strikes me as potentially productive.  

There was much more in the speech, and much more conversation to come. But those are my initial thoughts on Obama’s challenging speech.  Tomorrow I will begin assessing the responses in the Arab world.

Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark

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