On June 4, U.S. President Barack Obama delivered a much-anticipated address to the world’s Muslims, from a podium at Cairo University. (If you cannot see the embedded video above, click here. The text is here.) The following MESH members responded to an invitation to comment on the speech: Alan Dowty, Michele Dunne, Chuck Freilich, Bernard Heykal, Bruce Jentelson, Josef Joffe, Mark N. Katz, Mark T. Kimmitt, Martin Kramer, Walter Laqueur, Michael Mandelbaum, Michael Reynolds, Michael Rubin, Harvey Sicherman, Philip Carl Salzman, Raymond Tanter, and Michael Young.
Michele Dunne :: What President Obama had going for him in this speech was at least the appearance of frankness, laying on the table the areas of difference—terrorism (repackaged as “violent extremism”), Afghanistan, Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nuclear proliferation, democracy, religious freedom, women’s rights, economic development—and giving his view of each one. That approach, along with the requisite expressions of support for Islam as a religion and a civilization, will get him some points.
What the speech did not do was tell us anything much about how his administration will follow up on these issues. The list of deliverables was exceedingly short. The only firm promise was to a pursue a two-state solution to the Palestine issue—which will be extremely difficult to achieve. There were hints of a softer approach to Hamas (now it’s an organization with “support” and “responsibilities” instead of a terrorist group) and perhaps to Hezbollah (“we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments”), but it was unclear how serious that was and whether it would be sustainable in Washington.
If Obama considered “terrorism” a toxic word to be discarded, at least he did not do the same with “democracy.” He stayed on the plane of theory but addressed the issue squarely, not ducking its political aspects, and this was the part of the address that got the most positive reaction from the Egyptian audience. It was the only part of the speech where he actually lectured a bit, issuing a series of “you musts” when it came to what “government of the people and by the people” meant. Frankly it was more than I expected. It was a good start to articulate principles for which the United States stands, but then again, there was no promise of follow-up. What, if anything, will the Obama administration do when the Egyptian government excludes most of the opposition from the next parliamentary elections or when Syria throws a bunch of democracy activists in jail? Obama told us nothing about that. Privately, administration people are saying that Bush promised much on democracy and delivered little, and that Obama plans to do the reverse. Let’s see. We won’t have long to wait.
The women’s rights and economic development sections near the end had a cut-and-paste feel. These are Secretary Clinton’s pet issues, and apparently she is inclined to try to substitute them for democracy and human rights overall in policy and assistance programs. At least that didn’t happen in this speech. But the smallish economic and women’s rights initiatives mentioned created a sort of imbalance. It would have been better either to have Obama say what he was going to do in each of the major areas of the speech or none of them, perhaps saving the microloans for announcement in a fact sheet.
Bernard Haykel :: I am writing from Riyadh where President Obama was cordially received but has left a bitter aftertaste among many here. His visit is seen as an attempt to get, not to say bully, the Saudi leadership to make concrete and positive gestures toward Israel, over and above the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative of 2002. Saudis have little desire or willingness to do this because of a widely held view that Israel, especially under its present Likud leadership and after the brutal war in Gaza earlier this year, does not deserve this. A number of Saudis have asked the following question: Why should the Kingdom reward an Israeli leadership that is not even willing to acknowledge the Palestinians’ right to a state? Granting something additional now to Israel for nothing can only help make the Saudi leadership look weak-kneed.
As for Obama’s speech in Cairo, all the Saudis I have spoken to have acknowledged its rhetorical power, but they insist that only facts will make a difference to their assessment of the President’s true intentions.
My own view is that the speech was remarkable for its relative candor on a number of important issues (and for some notable omissions), but I am troubled by its framing which juxtaposes the United States and Islam as two equivalent entities, which they are not. In doing this, Obama has adopted unwittingly the framing of Al Qaeda’s ideology, and this in turn might grant a degree of legitimacy to discussing Islam as a political reality rather than a faith. Surely, it is certain forms of Islamism and not Islam that pose the problem.
The second notable point in the speech is Obama’s analogy between the plight of Palestinians and that of African-Americans under slavery and Jim Crow. The context here is Obama’s advice to Palestinians to adopt non-violent means in resisting Israeli occupation. As before, Obama has taken a page from Al Qaeda’s book, in which the alleged humiliation and oppression of Muslims are compared to the tribulations of African-Americans. Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s number two leader, often invokes this same history by drawing on the examples of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers to argue that only violence and rejection can lead to political change, and to convince African-American soldiers to desert the U.S. armed forces.
In short, the framing of the United States’ relationship with the Muslim world as one based on friendship rather than enmity, while superficially and rhetorically laudable, is fraught with difficulties and pitfalls, not least because it can unwittingly give credence to the idea that there might in fact be a clash between the United States and Islam. I can imagine a long-bearded man now smiling in a cave on the Afghan-Pakistan border.
Josef Joffe :: The problem laid out by President Obama in Cairo is an old one in America’s international relations. It is foreign policy as psychotherapy. The diplomatist/strategist deals with conflicts of interest and the “correlation of forces,” as our Soviet friends used to say. The therapist knows no such clashes, certainly no tragedies—only misunderstandings, fears, and neuroses. Obama-in-Cairo was Esalen-amidst-the-Pyramids. Or as he himself put it: “This cycle of suspicion and discord must end.” It is an imaginary conflict, in other words.
There are several issues here. The first is that the therapist does not speak truth but reassurance. Obama recounts how Morocco was the first to recognize the United States in the Treaty of Tripoli of 1796. Unfortunately, the larger, though unmentioned, truth is less reassuring: that the first wars America fought after independence were with the “Barbary Pirates,” the potentates of the Maghreb. To break their nasty habit of selling American hostages for money, the young republic fought intermittently from 1801 to 1815. No misunderstandings here, just the naked clash of our interests against theirs.
A larger untruth is the (implicit) idea that America is at war with Islam, as uttered in the e contrario phrase: “America is not—and never will be—at war with Islam.” Of course not. Who ever said so? Only Al Qaeda et al. did—copiously and tirelessly. These folks also keep saying as insistently that they are at war with the “Jews and crusaders,” with the West, and above all, America. Before the President reached Cairo, AQ’s No. 2, Aymal al-Zawahiri, let it be known that Obama’s speech would not at all change the “bloody messages” he was sending to Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Therapists make no judgments on truth and falsehood; for them, the process is the purpose. But a process that does not correctly unearth the roots of conflict will invariably run afoul of the realities. Islamist terror will not go away because Obama softly, softly establishes a kind of moral equivalence between the Holocaust and what Palestinians call the Nakba, their loss and flight in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.
Nor will the Arab world flock to America’s cause because of all the niceties Obama has bestowed on it. Let it be said, though, that the harsh rhetoric on Israel plus slaps like no-state-dinner for Mr. Netanyahu at the White House have been replaced by the balanced cadences of the Cairo speech: The Israelis have to do this, the Palestinians and Arabs have to do that.
But the chickens have already come home to roost. The hope, a perennial one, obviously is that the Arabs will be so overjoyed by the U.S. manhandling Israel that they will rally to Old Glory en masse, doing America’s bidding throughout the Greater Middle East. This is not how the Mideast works. To make the point, the spokesman of the Egyptian foreign ministry told the New York Times: “We will judge everything by the degree of Israeli commitments, and measures that are taken.”
In so many words: “Mr. President, now that you have pressured the Israelis, we want to see more of it. And more. And then, perhaps, we’ll do you a favor on other matters.” We are back at the oldest game of the Middle East. It is called “Let the U.S. Deliver Israel, Then We Might Start Acting in Our Own Interest.” Obviously, if it were in the Arab interest to push the Palestinians toward peace, and to engage in an alliance of containment and deterrence against Iran, they would have done so. But for lots of reasons, good and bad, the Arabs are not interested. And so the United States will keep weakening its only true ally in the Middle East without reaping any geopolitical fruit from its courtship of Araby.
Alas, a lot of damage will have been done before the United States learns that therapy is not grand strategy and changes course. But one bit of therapeutic advice remains apropos: Never treat your opponents and detractors better than your friends.
Mark N. Katz :: President Obama gave a powerful speech in Cairo setting forth his vision of how the relationship between the United States and the Muslim world can be improved. In it, he called for change both in how the United States and its allies view and act toward the Muslim world. But he also called for change in how the Muslim world views and acts toward America and its allies.
Early on in the speech, he pledged “to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.” In the very next sentence, though, he insisted that, “the same principle must apply to Muslim perceptions of America.”
His remarks about how the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq began and about Guantanamo were obviously critical of Bush administration policies. His saying that, “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements… It is time for these settlements to stop,” is an unmistakable call for change in Israeli policy. At the same time, however, Obama made clear that America’s bonds with Israel are “unbreakable.”
And in one of the most important passages of the speech, Obama called for a change in Palestinian behavior toward Israel. “Palestinians must abandon violence,” he stated bluntly. He noted that black people had suffered in America, but that, “it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America’s founding.” He noted that non-violent resistance had overcome oppression elsewhere too. Non-violent resistance, he implied, would help the Palestinians achieve their goal of an independent state while violent resistance would not.
Later, Obama called for improved Iranian-American relations, but made clear that Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons is unacceptable.
Regarding the democratization of the Muslim world, Obama stated that this was not something that “can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.” On the other hand, he made clear that America wants to see progress toward democracy in the Muslim world, and that this is in the interests of Muslim governments since “governments that protect…rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure.”
Those in the Muslim world who do not want to cooperate with the United States will find—indeed, have already found—reasons to dismiss Obama’s speech. Osama bin Laden dismissed it even before Obama gave it. However, those in the Muslim world who did not like American foreign policy in the past but would like to cooperate with America in the future can find in Obama’s speech an American president who acknowledges their concerns and is willing to work with them.
Obama’s Cairo speech represents a good faith effort to improve America’s relations with the Muslim world. If this does not occur, it will not be for lack of trying on Obama’s part.
Mark T. Kimmitt :: OK. The long-anticipated “major speech to the Muslim world” is over, and it is being parsed for messages, inferences, policy directions and reactions. The “let me tell you what the President should say next week” crowd is reviewing the text to see if their recommendations were embraced, rejected or reversed. The analysts and pundits on Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya and a thousand broadsheets in the region are assessing it to see how it aligns with editorial policy. The President is moving on, rhetorically and physically, to the next key administration challenge, be it North Korea, the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square, General Motors, Afghanistan-Pakistan or a host of other high-priority national security issues.
As for the speech, all the right messages were sent out. America is not at war with Islam, we have common interests in fighting violent extremism, Palestine is a problem, a nuclear-armed Iran is a threat, and democracy is a form of human rights. So, let’s push the reset button. Good, practical sound bites that reaffirm U.S. policy and increase our appeal on the street, but there was little in the way of tangible new initiatives or promises of outcomes. Perhaps it was too much to expect, but the speech seemed more of a conversation rather than a commitment.
It’s fine to have a conversation. Perhaps it’s helpful to tell the Muslim world that we will get out of Afghanistan when the job is done, and get out of Iraq by 2012 regardless. Helpful to note that the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. Important to clarify that Iran should have nuclear power, but not nuclear weapons. But what is the administration going to do about this? The only tangible “we shalls” in the speech were easy and low-hanging fruit on education, science and technology, economic development and fighting violent extremists. No specific “we shalls” on Iran, on Palestine, on Gaza, on Syria. Only aspirations and “we seek.” Fine speech, but what’s next?
Was this a speech to guide U.S. policy or enhance U.S. popularity? Will the speech prove to be the catalyst for reform, for moderation, for diplomatic breakthrough or simply words to calm the street? If nothing else, the speech has built up expectations, and expectations are that the United States wants to reset the relationship—and that there will be tangible results from that new relationship. The Muslim world will be looking for outcomes, for a change to the status quo, for breakthroughs in long-standing grievances. The speech raised expectations and the street is looking for results.
Among the billion or so who listened carefully to a well-crafted speech, many are sitting in taxis, sipping coffee in cafes, praying in mosques and arguing in universities. Many if not all of them are applauding the speech and many (if not all) are asking the same question: what’s next?
So, congratulations on a great speech, well-written and well-delivered. It is certain to change more than a few minds about American intentions. But good words and good intentions have a rapidly depreciating value, and will make things worse if these words turn out to be false promises. Time will tell.
It’s not what you say, it’s what you do.
Martin Kramer :: “Peoples of Egypt, you will be told that I have come to destroy your religion; do not believe it! Reply that I have come to restore your rights, to punish the usurpers, and that I respect more than the Mamluks God, His Prophet, and the Quran.” So spoke Bonaparte when he arrived in Egypt, in a proclamation of July 2, 1798. Substitute “Islam” for Egypt, “we Americans” for I, and “violent extremists” for the Mamluks, and you’ve got the core message of President Obama’s speech.
It’s a very old drill in the annals of “public diplomacy.” Supplementary gestures help. Obama was careful to pronounce the word Quran with the guttural qaf of the Arabic. (Too bad, though, he botched the word hijab.) Unless you’re converting, you can’t say Ich bin ein Muslim, so you come as close as you can. (Barack Hussein Obama—can we finally use his middle name now?—gets closer than most.) Some Muslims are wise to this, and so presumably they will discount it. But the great majority? Who doesn’t love pandering?
I leave it to others to parse the sparse policy pointers in the speech. (Rob Satloff does a nice job of it.) Some of the influences on Obama bubble to the surface. There is the Third Worldism: Muslims are victims of our colonialism (Obama has read Fanon) and the Cold War (has he been reading Khalidi again?) The primacy of the West is over: “Any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail.” There is the implicit comparison of the Palestinians to black Americans during segregation, a familiar trope (Carter and Condi went for it too). Israel comes across as an anomaly. There is no appreciation of Israel as a strategic asset—its ties to the United States are “cultural and historical,” and thus not entirely rational. (That validates Obama’s other former Chicago colleague, Mearsheimer.) All of this has the ring of conviction—and of a Third Worldist sensibility.
Maybe the most disconcerting line is this one: “We can’t disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretense of liberalism.” The pretense? This discrediting of liberalism and its universal humanism is the classic stance of the Third Worldist radical. And did you know that the job description of the nation’s leader now includes “my responsibility as president of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear”? Perhaps it’s possible to disband CAIR. America now has a president who knows “what Islam is, [and] what it isn’t,” and who even has a mandate to insist on closing “the divisions between Sunni and Shia.” Perhaps an emissary should be sent from Washington to the pertinent muftis and mullahs: the mission would certainly be more congenial than closing divisions of General Motors.
Indeed, not since Bonaparte has a foreigner landed on Egyptian soil and delivered a message of such overbearing hubris. Were I a Muslim, this 6,000-word manifesto would have me worried stiff. This man wants to be my president as much as he is America’s.
Walter Laqueur :: An excellent speech. Even before it was delivered, Wikipedia included it its list of the greatest speeches ever, a list beginning with the Pericles funeral oration. If a religion has 1.3 billion followers, it was only natural that the emphasis had to be on a new beginning, on mutual interest and mutual trust, on partnership, on peace, on not being prisoners of the past, on breaking the cycle of suspicion, on Muslims having enriched America, on doing away with crude stereotypes, on diplomacy and international consensus, on all of us sharing common aspirations, on listening and learning from each other, on Andalus, algebra and on the 1,200 mosques in America, on all of us being the children of Abraham, on “any world order that elevates one people over another will inevitably fail,” on education and innovation being the currency of the 21st century.
How much of this is genuinely believed? How candid can one (should one) be? I am sure that when the Prince of Wales said a few years ago that the Muslim critique of materialism helped him to rediscover sacred Islamic spirituality, he had never even heard about taqiya and kitman. I do not know the answer to the question; perhaps it was a mixture of the two.
Dissimulation may not be an admirable practice, but it could save lives. I recommend Macaulay’s 1850 essay on Machiavelli, a strong believer in Qui nescit dissimulare, nescit regnare which, freely translated, means that he who does not know to dissimulate has no business to be in politics.
What of the impact of the speech? An unfair question: soft power, however desirable, has its limits. Pericles’ funeral oration did not lead to the resurrection of the dead and there is still much sin in the world despite the Sermon on the Mount.
Michael Mandelbaum :: President Obama’s Cairo speech continues two venerable traditions of American public life. One arises from the electoral politics of foreign policy. It is customary for the presidential candidate of the out-party to promise more skillful conduct of the country’s relations with the rest of the world, either by adopting different positions—as with candidate Barack Obama’s promise to end American participation in the Iraq war—or by doing better in pursuit of a goal on which all agree.
During the Cold War the standard version of this second tactic was the charge that the incumbent had, through crass insensitivity, botched relations with America’s European allies, which the challenger promised to repair with more adept diplomacy. America’s relations with Muslims served this electoral purpose in the 2008 presidential election, with the challenger promising to improve them by dint not so much of his policies as of his identity. The purpose of the Cairo speech was presumably to deliver on that promise.
Unfortunately, it will not do so. Muslims’ attitudes to the United States will depend on Obama’s policies—that is, on what he does—not on who his father was. Whatever the uses of identity politics within the United States, there is no good reason to suppose that they have any significant effect beyond the country’s borders. As Anne Mandelbaum has observed, Dwight Eisenhower’s German background did not win him approval among Germans during the years, from 1942 to 1945, when he had extensive dealings with them. Nor is it clear why people in Muslim-majority countries should be favorably impressed with the fact that the United States has a president one of whose parents shared their faith. They live, after all, in countries governed, for the most part, by men who by that standard qualify as twice as Islamic as Obama, and whose performances in office have been, to put it generously, unimpressive.
The second political tradition that the speech continues is the perennial overconfidence of all presidents of the United States in the power of their own oratory. Such overconfidence is not surprising. In the United States an individual becomes the most powerful person in the world through his speeches. It is one of the glories of the American political system that a presidential election is, in part, a debating contest. Foreign policy, however, is not. Here again, what is relevant is the fact that what Obama does will shape Muslims’ (and others’) opinion of him and his country, while what he says will not. His impact on Muslims and the countries in which they live will therefore come from the policies affecting them that he devises after words fail him.
Michael Rubin :: Obama is a gifted orator, one in a generation. By nature of Obama’s background—and the fact that he is not George W. Bush—he has a real chance to change the tone of discussion in the Middle East and among Islamic states. That said, rhetoric isn’t enough. Policy matters. Here, there is cause for concern. The Obama doctrine appears to rest on twin pillars: One is a decision to dispense with demands for accountability, and the second seems to be moral equivalency or cultural relativism.
Both Bush and Obama spoke of Palestine and their desire to see the creation of a state for Palestinian Arabs to live beside Israel. But Bush conditioned U.S. support for Palestine’s independence on a cessation of terrorism. Obama does not. And while he certainly condemned “violence” (perhaps terrorism is too loaded a term for Obama), he implied equivalence between this and the dislocation felt by some Palestinian Arabs.
Obama also cast aside demands for accountability when discussing elections, declaring “America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election.” This appears to be an allusion to the lack of U.S. support for the Hamas-led government in Gaza. The United States should be under no obligation, however, to befriend or assist governments which run counter to its interests. After all, U.S. foreign aid is not an entitlement. Hamas scrapped—and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt demands the scrapping of—agreements to which their entity and state have already obligated themselves. We should hold them accountable, not say we will embrace everyone.
As for cultural equivalency, I must object to his statement: “Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail.” Time and time again, however, it has been the superpower status of the United States which has prevented a far worse world order from taking root, be it in Europe, Asia, or even Latin America. The United States is not equal to Libya, nor should it ever be.
The cultural equivalency also permeated Obama’s discussion of democracy. Backtracking away from democratization as a pillar of policy, Obama said: “No system of government can or should be imposed by one nation by any other. That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people. Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people.” But there are certain norms of good governance. On the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square, for example, we should not say, “Oh, well: That’s just the way Chinese democracy works.”
Let’s hope for the best but, absent a clear articulation of what the United States stands for and what our vision is, rhetoric will not be enough to make a better, more secure world or build a solid foundation for U.S. relations with Muslim-majority states.
Harvey Sicherman :: President Obama’s Cairo speech was Wilsonian. The lofty moral tone, keen detachment (all claims treated equally), and leap-of-faith rhetoric are all there. So is the religious overlay. And as befits the shorter attention span of the 21st century, Obama proposes to remake the world in seven points instead of fourteen, in 55 minutes instead of Wilson’s 99-plus.
As president of a secular democracy, Obama’s choice of location (Mubarak’s Egypt) and audience (a “world” identified only by religion) offered minefields aplenty. He negotiated most of these with admirable dexterity but not always. One paragraph invoked “a partnership between America and Islam,” and then declared that “I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.” This was a bit much. Probably, as Theodore Roosevelt once said about a Wilsonian elocution, “as a matter of fact, the words mean nothing whatsoever.”
Some of the other words do mean something. Obama vigorously asserted the dignity of America’s civil religion, especially freedom of speech, religion, democracy, and women’s rights. He refuted dangerous nonsense about 9/11 and the Holocaust; explained policy in Iraq and Afghanistan; and justified the two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Coming from Saudi Arabia the day before, he instructed the Arab oil producers not to rely on “what comes out of the ground,” and instead educate their people. Good luck!
Obama’s “no sticks in sight” approach to Iran, including his apology on the Mossadegh affair (Madeleine Albright did this in 1998) was all open hand to which the Iranians thus far have responded with the middle finger. But the President’s framework ought to alarm the Israelis: will a U.S.-Iranian “dialogue” produce a demand that Israel yield its nuclear weapons in exchange for international guarantees that Iran, under international supervision, will not build one?
Obama, as he told New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman before the speech, wanted to “speak directly” to the Arab street and persuade them of America’s “straightforward manner. Then at the margins, both they and their leadership are more inclined and able to work with us.” But this is more than a margin call. Obama has straightforwardly distanced himself from Israel, the better to cultivate the Arab coalition, whose leaders are his real target. Can they deliver the Palestinians to a compromise acceptable to Israel? Can they do much to alter the Iranian course? Or is the Arab coalition’s influence, like that of the Arab street, or the world of Islam, only a shadow of its reputation? A historian might say of the Cairo speech that it was a triumph—of hope over experience.
Philip Carl Salzman :: President Obama uses his bully pulpit in Cairo to urge his vision to the people of the Middle East. That vision is one of commonality based on common traditions and common humanity. The driving force that would motivate this commonality is teleological: a desire for progress. We all want the same things, he argues and urges: peace, prosperity, dignity, education, family, community. If we only look ahead, we shall get along with one another, and go along the path of progress. This is a remarkable post-postmodern rebirth of the 19th-century concept of progress.
But the President does not address the people of the Middle East, but instead addresses Muslims. In doing so, he validates the argument by Islamists that Islam should be the primary identity of the people of the Middle East, and implicitly validates the vision of a new Caliphate. And in focusing on Islam, he must over-communicate virtues and commonalities, and under-communicate problems and differences. Islam, he tells us, is a religion of “tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.” He goes on to say that “throughout history, Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality.”
This seems to me rather a whitewash of a dark history. Why, it’s déjà Bush, all over again: Islam is the religion of peace. Indeed, he argues that “one rule… lies at the heart of every religion—that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.” I suppose we should not be surprised that these formulations are geared to generate positive sentiments, rather than to summarize our knowledge of actual Islamic history, theology, or law.
Several times the President urges listeners to stop looking backward, to leave past grievances aside: “If we choose to be bound by the past, we will never move forward.” This is a difficult message for Muslims, given their understanding that the golden age of Islam was under Muhammad, who should for all eternity be the model for every believer. Islam under Muhammad is the life to be emulated. A good Muslim always looks back.
The specifics are mixed. The President is strong on “unbreakable” bonds with Israel, and that “Palestinians must abandon violence.” Definite on favoring two states. Strong on condemning Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism, but in the abstract only. Strong on democracy generally speaking. Strong denouncing Iran’s bomb. Weak on Palestinians still in camps in Arab countries. Very mild on women’s rights. Ambiguous on Jerusalem. Wishes a nuclear-free world, but no special emphasis on a nuclear-free Middle East.
Shall the good intentions of the President pave the path to progress?
Raymond Tanter :: President Obama’s Cairo speech was replete with soaring rhetoric designed to reach out to Muslims around the globe, and particularly those in the Arab world. The President remarked that now is “a time of great tension between the United States and Muslims around the world,” but added:
We have a responsibility to join together on behalf of the world 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.
The President can certainly talk the talk regarding outreach to Muslims, but will he walk the walk that the Muslim street wishes to see?
Doing so would require a number of U.S. policy changes to appease the Muslim street, such as pressuring Israel to make unilateral concessions, expanding engagement with Syria without preconditions, accepting an Iranian regime with a uranium enrichment capability, withdrawing forces more quickly from Iraq, halting drone attacks of Al Qaeda and Taliban targets in Pakistan, and reversing U.S. escalation in Afghanistan.
President Obama was careful to signal that such unrealistic policies would not be forthcoming. He indicated an evenhanded policy on the Arab-Israeli dispute, reaffirmed his commitment to keep Iran from getting the bomb, held to his Iraq timetable, and justified escalation in Afghanistan.
The President’s indications that no major policy reversals would occur clashed with his eloquent rhetoric about a “new beginning” between Muslims and non-Muslims. Without any dramatic policy changes, President Obama’s speech is likely to unfairly raise expectations in the Muslim world, leading to inevitable disappointment.
Michael Young :: President Obama’s homily in Cairo had much that was interesting in it and much that was vague. That’s the nature of these communications, but several things suggested that Obama wanted to have his cake and eat it too.
In referring to the war in Iraq, the President remarked:
Unlike Afghanistan, Iraq was a war of choice that provoked strong differences in my country and around the world. Although I believe that the Iraqi people are ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, I also believe that events in Iraq have reminded America of the need to use diplomacy and build international consensus to resolve our problems whenever possible.
Indeed. But if Iraqis are better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, what does that tell us about U.S. policy when it comes to supporting democracy and human rights in the Middle East? After all, neither diplomacy nor an international consensus would have ever freed Iraqis from under Saddam’s thumb. So did the United States do the right thing in getting rid of the Baath regime by force? Obama didn’t address this prickly question.
That fuzziness, however, permeated his later discussion of democracy in the region. Obama pointed out: “So let me be clear: no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.” But then he went on to say that this did not lessen his commitment to governments that reflect the will of the people. Except that “America does not presume to know what is best for everyone.”
But hadn’t Obama just presumed to know that the Iraq war was ultimately beneficial for the Iraqi people, since he felt that they were better off without Saddam? And weren’t they better off without Saddam because the new system they are living under was imposed on them? And weren’t Obama’s bromides in favor of democracy and democratization not also statements implying that he presumed to know what was best for everyone?
If so, then why did he not just come out and state the obvious: that democracy, openness and pluralism are indeed better for all states, as is respect for human rights. Why did Obama prefer to avoid rocking the boat when it came to autocratic regimes in the region? Not a word was uttered on actual cases of human rights abuses, whether in Egypt, which was hosting him, or in any other part of the Middle East. Clearly, the realist aversion to involving the United States in the domestic policy of the region’s states was on display.
Finally, I was interested in what Obama had to say about the Maronites and the Copts, given my weakness for minorities in the region: “Among some Muslims, there is a disturbing tendency to measure one’s own faith by the rejection of another’s. The richness of religious diversity must be upheld—whether it is for Maronites in Lebanon or the Copts in Egypt.”
Yet this advice Obama placed under the rubric of “religious freedom.” Odd, because the problem of minorities in the Middle East is usually more political than religious. What the Copts would like more of is political power, not the freedom to exercise their religion. As for the Maronites, their sense of decline is attached not to the fact that they cannot practice their religion, which they can do without any objection from their Muslim compatriots, but that they feel political power is escaping them.
What do these issues have in common? They lead me to a disconcerting conclusion that Obama has no coherent view of political freedom in the Middle East. He tended to overemphasize religion, while underemphasizing how the United States might address political matters, such as what to do about dictatorial regimes, the major cause of the great trauma he described, namely 9/11; or how to reverse the absence of democracy in the Middle East, in illegitimate states that fail to fulfill the aspirations of their citizens; or what to do about minorities denied political power, Muslim and non-Muslim.
Obama submerged his speech in the holy water of religion, but it is freedom, the failure of the Arab state, and the lack of accountability of regional regimes that are far more central to the dilemmas the Middle East face today. In one word, it is mostly about politics, and on this Obama was too busy being polite to his listeners to raise the difficult questions he promised to raise.
Go to the comments for more from Alan Dowty, Chuck Freilich, Bruce Jentleson, and Michael Reynolds.
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