Barack Obama’s Cairo speech was one for the ages. Some of you will doubt me and that’s fine. But I’ll explain why I say this below.
I was listening to Warren Olney’s To the Point this morning which featured Fawas Gerges’ eloquent and wise evaluation of Barack Obama’s Cairo speech. In short, Gerges was wowed by it. Here are just two of the points he noted as significant. First, there was not a single reference to the word “terror” or the phrase “war on terror.” Second, Obama was the first president to use the word “Palestine” in a speech.
Now, there may be some out there who are not believers when it comes to Obama. They may say that this is all words and only deeds matter. And they would be right. But in all my decades of life I’ve come to understand that words lead to deeds. Words come first. Without them there can be no action. So the fact that the president has done a 180 degree u-turn from Bush national security rhetoric and the fact that Obama acknowledged the name of a future Palestinian state is very significant. It’s so significant that there are some very nervous Israeli politicians in Jerusalem right about now. It’s so significant that there is a settler extremist group which began a publicity campaign calling Obama anti-Semitic and picturing him in a Nazi uniform.
This simple phrase is almost revolutionary in terms of the awareness of most Americans and Muslims:
So let there be no doubt: Islam is a part of America.
After all the demonization during the election campaign of Obama’s Islamic family background and charges that he is a Muslim, he still comes right back with the notion that Islam is an intrinsic part of the American fabric. It is as if to say: the fearmongers and racists can say what they will, but as president I will reflect an America that is inclusive, tolerant and just. Imagine that!
In the following passage, Obama wisely addresses decades of empty rhetoric and missed opportunities in America’s Mideast policy. And he does so in a way that affirms that he will break with the past. Yes, even this is just words. But these are words from a president who aims not to be like all the rest who failed in so many attempts:
…Recognizing our common humanity is only the beginning of our task. Words alone cannot meet the needs of our people. These needs will be met only if we act boldly in the years ahead; and if we understand that the challenges we face are shared, and our failure to meet them will hurt us all.
One of the wonderful things about this speech is that it encompassed so many problems, so many conflicts, so much human history. Yet it did so without becoming platitudinous. Many of Obama’s words, which weren’t specifically about the Israeli-Arab conflict, nevertheless were evoked by them. It is as if the speaker was addressing an audience at Cairo University while also looking over their heads at an Israeli audience on the distant horizon.
Here the 42 year-old Israeli Occupation and even Biblical history comes to mind:
…Human history has often been a record of nations and tribes subjugating one another to serve their own interests. Yet in this new age, such attitudes are self-defeating. Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners of it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership…
…That does not mean we should ignore sources of tension. Indeed, it suggests the opposite: we must face these tensions squarely.
Here again Obama could have been talking about the decades of winking and nodding American administrations did with regard to Israeli behavior that was deleterious to a healthy peace process:
…Change cannot happen overnight. No single speech can eradicate years of mistrust, nor can I answer in the time that I have all the complex questions that brought us to this point. But I am convinced that in order to move forward, we must say openly the things we hold in our hearts, and that too often are said only behind closed doors.
The president did, of course, directly address the I-P conflict. He did so in words from an American leader that have never been as eloquent or empathic regarding Palestinian suffering (while of course not losing sight of Jewish suffering):
…It is…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.
And I have rarely heard an American president, in words addressed to violent Palestinian factions, speak more persuasively about the dead-end that is political terrorism:
…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.
Obama even had a constructive word for Hamas, which is routinely demonized by Israeli leaders:
Hamas does have support among some Palestinians, but they also have responsibilities. To play a role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations, and to unify the Palestinian people, Hamas must put an end to violence, recognize past agreements, and recognize Israel’s right to exist.
Despite the fact that he made a glancing comment about Hamas, it is significant because I don’t believe that any U.S. president has ever before conceded that Hamas has a following among Palestinians. Yes, this is a fact widely understood by all Palestinians and others around the world. But we must start where American policy IS. And it is not in a place that has ever been able to acknowledge Hamas as a legitimate player in the political process. Obama’s comment shows that, as in George Harrison’s song, “the ice is slowly melting.”
Similarly, no president has ever acknowledged as fully as this the suffering caused by the Gaza siege:
…Just as it devastates Palestinian families, the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel’s security; neither does the continuing lack of opportunity in the West Bank. Progress in the daily lives of the Palestinian people must be part of a road to peace, and Israel must take concrete steps to enable such progress.
Fawas Gerges notes that even Hamas has responded affirmatively to the speech calling it an opportunity to turn the page on relations between the U.S. and the Palestinians.
Turning to U.S. policy toward Iraq, Obama made this extraordinarily bold statement sure to unhinge Dick Cheney and the neocons:
Unlike Afghanistan, Iraq was a war of choice that provoked strong differences in my country and around the world…
9/11 was an enormous trauma to our country. The fear and anger that it provoked was understandable, but in some cases, it led us to act contrary to our ideals.
Words like these will begin a war between the current administration and the neocons. They will not take kindly to having their “legacy” tarnished by such (necessary) historical revisionism. If we thought the Republicans were obsessed with destroying Bill Clinton, I fear we ain’t seen nothin’ yet to compare with their animus toward the current president.
Speaking on Iran, I can’t recall any previous president acknowledging that the CIA overthrew Iran’s democratic government in 1953. Yet Obama does so clearly here:
In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically-elected Iranian government.
If there are any moderates in Iran who hold any sway in making its policy toward the U.S. they ought to read this passage very carefully. If they refuse to meet Obama halfway they may never find another president as willing and able to go the other half way and meet somewhere in the middle.
In addressing the issue of democracy, Obama came down clearly against Arab autocrats like his host, Hosni Mubarak, who has held power for 27 years. It is quite remarkable that without naming him, the president spoke out so vociferouly on behalf of values that would make Mubarak and other Arab leaders cringe. Equally astonishing is that sitting in the front row of the Egyptian audience were Mubarak’s son and future leader, Ayman Nour (Egypt’s most prominent and assaulted dissident), and the wife of exiled dissident, Saed Ibrahim. At what other time, could three such individuals sit together and listen to such words of political wisdom?
And Obama did so without any of the condescension or noblesse oblige that Bush mustered when he spoke on the same subject. In fact, in his speech he made a sharp contrast from the Bush legacy by affirming that the U.S. has principles and that it aspires to other nations sharing them, but that it will never impose those principles on another nation. This is a radical, and welcome shift from the past eight years.
Obama turned his closing remarks back to religion and the commonality it conveys to humanity. While the entire speech is elegant and concise, this passage particularly rings out with poetry:
There is…one rule that lies at the heart of every religion – that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. This truth transcends nations and peoples – a belief that isn’t new; that isn’t black or white or brown; that isn’t Christian, or Muslim or Jew. It’s a belief that pulsed in the cradle of civilization, and that still beats in the heart of billions. It’s a faith in other people, and it’s what brought me here today.