This piece was also published at TPM Café.
The Obama team’s remarkable wordsmithery and the president’s unparalleled capacity for delivery were exquisitely on display again today in Cairo. But this speech should perhaps be remembered as much for what was not said. Gone was the arrogance and lecturing: there was no lavishing of praise on Egypt’s undemocratic leader – the word ‘Mubarak’ was not even mentioned once. Out too was the purple finger version of democratization and even the traditional American condescension toward the Palestinian narrative. But perhaps most remarkably of all, the words ‘terror’ or ‘terrorism’ did not pass the president’s lips. Here was a leader and a team around him smart enough to acknowledge that certain words have become too tainted, too laden with baggage, their use has become counter-productive, today the Global War on Terror framing was truly laid to rest.
Particularly striking was that President Obama almost certainly has emerged from the Cairo speech having accumulated additional capital rather than expending it, with greater popularity, traction, and respect among not only his ostensible target audience, the Muslim world, but also globally, including at home in America and even in Israel and with the world’s Jewish community. His future leverage across a range of issues has been enhanced.
It’s true that whenever the speech descended from the lofty heights of 30,000 feet to the 100-feet resolution of policy specifics and details, the magic dust seemed to dissipate as it emerged from the clouds, and those details were too often more autopilot than reset. But this was a big picture speech, and there is room later to make those course corrections on policy detail.
Here then are ten quick thoughts:
1. The Mother of All Resets
The president’s speech literally in one fell swoop will have much of the Muslim world and certainly elites, opinion leaders, and activists scratching their heads and recalibrating their stance toward America. Yes, for everyone the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, what comes next and whether policy changes on specific issues. The immediate effect though is to buy America space and time. It gives those who share an affinity with American values a new lease of life, causes the majority who are not hostile to the US but deeply skeptical of its intentions to reconsider and suspend judgment, and it will induce in America’s enemies a splitting headache.
At a most basic level, the president managed to connect. He spoke humbly and touched on buzz words for this audience, discussing dignity, justice, and the truths we hold in our hearts. He even uttered the word colonialism and mentioned denial of rights and cold-ward proxies. Obama evoked Islam’s contribution to the world and to America, and yes, he quoted the Quran. Above all, he restored balance, confining the label of enemy only to those violent extremists who threaten America’s security, while opening up to the vast majority of practicing Muslims, including, I would argue, Islamist movements.
2. In Cairo the Conversation with Political Islam Began
By narrowly focusing on al-Qaeda as the enemy and apparently articulating an understanding of the non-al-Qaeda Islamist narrative, the president seemed to extend a tentative but visibly unclenched fist to mainstream political Islam. It is those Islamist movements that we should be most closely watching in the weeks and months ahead as they begin to work through their own responses to the new administration.
Obama seemed to implicitly accept the legitimacy of political Islam and its role in the democratic process while challenging it to unequivocally reject violence against civilians. There was a stark contrast, for instance, between the president’s message to al-Qaeda (we will defeat you if you threaten us) as compared to his message to Hamas (whom he addressed directly as having a role to fulfill Palestinian aspirations and unify the Palestinian people).
The president’s historical analogies may not have been the best ones. In discussing the nonviolent resistance of black America to the “lash of the whip” in achieving equal rights he obviously made a powerful and reasonable point but one that may be more relevant to a Palestinian struggle for a one-state democracy rather than for national liberation and de-occupation. By claiming that the same story can be told in South Africa and elsewhere, he simply rewrote history – the ANC did of course use armed resistance in their struggle as did so many other successful liberation movements.
That said, Obama’s effort to carry the argument in somewhat sympathetic terms to the Palestinian resistance–“violence…rockets…is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered”–was a valiant one and should be encouraged, not least in Israel. I might be reading too much into this but the speech could be seen as an acknowledgement that a process that engages Hamas is more likely to produce results than one that does not.
Responding immediately on al-Jazeera, Ahmed Yusuf, advisor to Gaza Prime Minister Haniyeh, lavished praised on Obama’s “Martin Luther King-like speech” and his rejection of the clash of civilizations discourse while defensively questioning his call for Hamas to accept the international community’s three preconditions (end violence, accept past agreements, recognize Israel).The distinction though was clear and the years of wrong-headedly lumping together the Salafist jihadis of al-Qaeda with the Muslim Brothers of Hamas or the Hezbollah movement is over.
3. Regaining the Moral Clarity of 9/11
Almost eight years on, there it was, an American president explaining to the world what happened on that day and the war of necessity against al-Qaeda that was launched in its wake. It was an important moment in resetting and reconfiguring for international and Muslim public opinion what happened then and has happened since. It is also perhaps the most damning indictment of all for the Bush presidency that in 2009 such a reiteration by an American president is so necessary.
President Obama also reissued a clear statement of America’s interests across a range of issues from getting out of Iraq and achieving a Palestinian state to its goals in Afghanistan, and shared values with so much of the Muslim world in promoting basic freedoms, religious pluralism, women’s rights, and development.
4. Finally a President Who Can Talk to Palestinians
Obama’s words on the Palestinian situation were not remarkable for his advocacy of a two-state solution, his mentioning of Palestine, or his opposition to the settlements. All of that we have heard before, and in fact, the speech gave precious little by way of actually articulating a plan for Palestinian de-occupation and statehood. But that was also its strength.
The idea of a Palestinian state, even before it exists, has lost much of its luster and appeal for Palestinians precisely because American and Israeli leaders talked about statehood as a technical fix for a Palestinian problem, in exclusively economic, governance, and security terms. In so doing, they ignored or demeaned and denied the Palestinian narrative and made the whole arrangement sound rather unappetizing.
Today, President Obama began to redress that. PA capacity and economic opportunities were something of a footnote. And thankfully, the building of Palestinian security forces was not even mentioned.
Instead Obama spoke a language that actual Palestinians could relate to, recalling the 60-year “pain of dislocation,” the “wait in refugee camps” (without in the same breath emasculating the refugees of any rights). He spoke of humiliation, occupation, and an intolerable situation – in other words, Palestinian daily reality. Only after recognizing the Palestinian experience did he chart the course for achieving “the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity,” namely, via a Palestinian state. This shift in discourse may be lost on most American ears, not so for Palestinians and in the Arab and Muslim world, and it begins to give Obama a moral authority that will allow him to address this issue in speaking directly to the Palestinian people above the heads of their divided leadership.
5. Shimon Peres Could Not Have Done a Better Job
In what is becoming classical Obama, he at the same time presented perhaps the most compelling justification and explanation of Israel’s rights and its existence ever spoken in an Arab and Muslim capital. No Israeli has ever done a better job, he is a true friend. In the most unequivocal of terms and in a speech that so captured Muslim world attention, Obama placed the notions of threatening Israel’s destruction, stereotypes of Jews, and Holocaust denial, as being irredeemably beyond the pale and unacceptable. And he reaffirmed America’s “unbreakable bond with Israel.”
Tellingly, if unsurprisingly, it is these messages that are leading the Israeli news coverage of the speech. While the government of Benjamin Netanyahu may be squirming in discomfort at Obama’s reasoned and repeated calls for a settlement freeze, for reopening Gaza, and for Palestinian statehood, the Israeli public will, I think, be both reassured and keen to believe in the hope for change and a better future for them also.
One imagines too that the day is not so far off for an honest, empathetic, and home-truths Obama speech to Israel and the Jewish world. Expect that speech to be not only well-received but also to bring us dramatically closer to finally ending the Arab-Israeli conflict and achieving that two-state solution. Obama’s use of the phrase, “align American policies with those who pursue peace,” will also be noted in Jerusalem. Finally, by referring to “Jewish homeland” rather than a Jewish state, Obama, I think, studiously avoided giving succor to the slew of racist laws being presented in the new Israeli Knesset.
6. Policy Details – More Auto-Pilot Than Reset.
In a speech that I genuinely think carries game-changing potential for so many issues that America and the Muslim world are caught up in, there was virtually nothing new in detailed policy terms. That is very probably due to the nature of the speech, and the detailed policy changes might follow in the coming months. But if they don’t, Cairo will go down as a moment of unrequited promise and opportunity.
On Israel-Palestine, we dusted off the Road Map (yet again), a Bush relic that should have long ago been filed in the trash can, and the Afghanistan and Iraq plans still do not sound too convincing. It’s unclear how even Obama’s more sophisticated version of democratization will be advanced with America’s staunchest and most democracy-resistant allies, and the way forward with Iran remains opaque. Noteworthy, too, was that in a speech stating that America has no designs on maintaining military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, the continued American military footprint elsewhere in the Arab and Muslim world was not touched upon.
7. Hosni Mubarak and the Perils of Playing Host
Egypt’s rulers would no doubt have been mortified had this speech taken place anywhere else in the Arab or Muslim world. There is an understandable Egyptian sense of pride in their history and sense of longing to still be considered the region’s leading power. Having landed those hosting rights, Mubarak’s regime today had to live with the consequences. Obama spoke to his audience and to the Egyptian people, and in an interesting break from past practice, his presidential host Mr. Mubarak was not even mentioned let alone lavished with praise. It will not go unnoticed.
Obama did mention Egypt’s Christian Coptic minority and of course spoke to human rights and people choosing their own governments to loud applause. So much for all the neocon bleating before the speech about Obama being a valueless realist ready to sell freedom-spirited Egyptians down the river. I was not there, but a sense of being empowered almost seemed to echo around the room at Cairo University and well beyond, and it might have major implications for Egypt and the region that will be played out in the coming years.
And finally, we have an American president who avoided the Pavlovian repetition of how American support for the Egyptian regime is so linked to Egypt’s historic peace with Israel. The way that linkage has played out – that America goes soft of non-democratic tendencies in the Arab world as long as they are pro-Israel – has done a great disservice to the public perception of not only peace but also of America and even Israel.
8. More Hand Less Fist on Iran
There was even some encouragement for Obama’s Iran policy in today’s speech. It was beginning to look disturbingly like the Obama administration would be brandishing the stick of sanctions in one hand and the stopwatch of deadlines in the other, thereby leaving no hand free to shake any prospective Iranian unclenched fist. Obama moved beyond that. Many will point to his acknowledgement of history: “The United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government,” as being the money line. It’s true that is a big deal and goes further than what was said in his Norouz message. However, I think this was more important, if not entirely new: “any nation- including Iran – should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the NPT.”
The president also had this intriguing chestnut to share on nuclear nonproliferation: “I understand those who protest that some countries have weapons that others do not.” Now I may be a bit Israelocentric in how I look at the world but this sounds like a not too subtle hint to me. Might this be a kind of “yes – we acknowledge there is a double standard here regarding the Israeli nuclear issue, and eventually we will get to that too.” It won’t be a headline, Israel will officially ignore it, and when asked Obama’s spokespeople will obfuscate but in more than a few capitals, including Jerusalem, a parsing industry will grow up around those few words.
9. Giving a Finger to the Purple Finger Theory of Democratization
Obama did it. He reclaimed the democratization agenda by placing it in a broader context as a set of rights and freedoms, and by going on to address religious pluralism, women’s rights, and the challenge of adapting economic development and modernity to traditional values. To be honest, it’s not a particularly difficult one to pull off, but to give him his fair dues, Barack Obama does do it better than anyone else. And there’s something of a new policy here, timely with the Lebanese election elections next week: “…we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments – provided they govern with respect for all their people.”
The genius was in the pivot. Obama respected Islamic tradition and religious piety, and for instance, a woman’s right to wear the hijab, and he then pivoted that into a broader discussion of the values of female education and women’s rights, placing those things in seamless harmony rather than in contradiction. After an American president who was perceived as doing so much to sow division in the Muslim world, one of Obama’s most powerful lines was undoubtedly, “fault-lines must be closed among Muslims… the divisions between Sunni and Shia have led to tragic violence,” and all this couched in a constant appeal to young people.
10. And He Was Also Speaking to the American Public
After years of fear-mongering, Islamofascist awareness weeks on campuses, and tens of millions of copies of the vile “Obsession” DVD appearing in newspapers and mailboxes, yet another, no less important, reset button was pressed today. The president will no doubt be accused of apologetics and moral relativism, but he decided to face this head-on, to go to Cairo, speak with respect and honesty to the Muslim world, and to do what was best for America’s national security interests.
In so doing, he was also broadcasting a message back home. Most American Muslims will no doubt be feeling a great sense of pride and inspiration from this speech. The rest of America was given a timely and even touching reminder of the contributions that American Muslims have made to this country and that Muslims have given the world in general. Oh, and there might have even been a little message in there upping the ante, for Congress and even for his own party–“I have ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed by early next year.”