Friday, June 5, 2009

Obama's Cairo Speech: Early Assessments

Here' some of what the world press is saying about President Obama's landmark address in Cairo, plus my brief take.

My own feeling is that if the prime goal of this speech was to gain the confidence of the Muslim world, we'll soon know if he was successful. Iran and Lebanon face key elections over the coming couple of weeks. If the people of those countries are now more inclined than before to eschew extremism and pursue more a more pro-Western path, this speech will have more than served its purpose. It might, in fact, prove to be a watershed. That was his prime, immediate audience: the voters of Iran and Lebanon. Otherwise, why choose this week to deliver this speech? Plus, it is to the President's credit that he made a powerful argument for the existence of Israel and the abomination of Holocaust denial in front of this audience - and backing it up with a trip to Buchenwald today. I think we can say confidently that this is a President who would not go to Bitburg.

I am the first to cringe at the moral equivalence that is often drawn between Jewish and Palestinian suffering, but I do not think that's what Obama was trying to do here, an accusation leveled by some, including Abe Foxman of the ADL. One cannot draw that equivalence between say a suicide bomber and his victim; but one can say that the Palestinians have suffered greatly in general. Whether it is as much as the Jews have suffered is irrelevant here. What's important is to recognize that they have suffered. Most Israelis agree. Most would also add that the suffering has been caused, in large part, by their own leadership. But the fact of suffering is undeniable. So I'm not going to fault Obama for bringing that suffering up after having mentioned the Holocaust as a prime source of Jewish suffering. He didn't have to bring up tr Shoah at all, but he did, powerfully and unequivocally, in the very place where they need to hear it most, where the "Protocols of Zion is still a best seller, even and especially among the intellectuals and in the media.

Now for other opinions:

First, I highly recommend this analysis by Robert Satler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Here is an excerpt with some of the key points:

Key Observations

Limited strategic objectives. Despite his often soaring rhetoric, the president actually outlined a strategic agenda for U.S. interests that is narrowly defined and limited in scope. On Iran, the president again focused on the limited objective of ensuring that Iran does not have nuclear weapons; no longer do senior Americans talk about preventing Iran from completing the nuclear fuel cycle, having a uranium enrichment capability, or even being able to develop a nuclear weapon. Additionally, in contrast to recent statements by Arab leaders, he made no reference to Iran's state-sponsoring of terrorist groups Hizballah and Hamas, including their activities against host-country Egypt. On Iraq, the president defined America's twin goals as building an undefined "better Iraq" and leaving Iraq to the Iraqis; he made no reference either to having democracy take root in that country or to aspirations for long-term U.S. alliance with a country that was a long-time adversary. Notably absent was any reference to Lebanon, viewed widely as a strategic fulcrum for both the current and the previous administrations, except for an odd reference to religious tolerance for Maronite Christians. And in terms of combating extremism, the president narrowly defined the objective as countering violence (i.e., counterterrorism), moving backward from the emerging consensus among professionals here and abroad that it is essential to compete against extremists far earlier in the process of radicalization (i.e., counterradicalization).

An implicit acceptance of political Islam. The president waded into heated political debate within Muslim societies and, either by design or by inattention, came down in favor of local Islamists, not local liberals or even anti-Islamists. Islamist parties across the region will cheer the fact that Obama cited only two benchmarks for U.S. recognition of Islamist parties, i.e., "peaceful and law-abiding," when the content of their message and the values they project -- including the imposition of sharia (Islamic law) -- can often be antithetical to our own. He made no reference to the frequent cooperation of autocrats and Islamists in denying political space to non-Islamist political parties, especially liberals who often do share American values. Most strikingly, no fewer than three times the president defended the right of Muslim women to wear the hijab, but at no point did he defend the right of Muslim women not to wear the hijab. (Indeed, immediately after the speech, the White House website put up a full-screen picture of a hijab-wearing woman, an eerie echo of an amateurish post-September 11 State Department brochure about Muslim life in America in which all American Muslim women were depicted wearing hijabs. Millions of Muslims -- including Muslim women -- will not be heartened by this message.

Lots of respect, not enough interest. In charting his proposed "new beginning," the president's words certainly emphasized the "mutual respect" part of his signature formula over the "mutual interests" part. His forceful words on terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and other difficult policy questions notwithstanding, the speech was notable for its often manufactured parallelism between blemishes in Muslim societies and blemishes in America and the West. From his opening refrain of decrying a "cycle of suspicion and discord," the president suggested that we are all equally at fault for bringing down the U.S.-Muslim relationship. This is problematic on two levels. First, this approach inflates the gravity of current problems and thereby aggravates the search for a solution; the reality is that America has excellent relations with numerous Muslim-majority countries, from Africa to Asia, and equally harmonious relations with hundreds of millions of Muslim citizens of those countries. Second, this approach equates heinous crimes in the name of religion -- e.g., the state-approved killing of apostates, adulterers, and others in some Muslim countries -- with laws adopted in Western countries for legitimate political and security objectives (e.g., France's law to ban headscarves in public schools or U.S. laws to prevent the illegal funding of terrorism via the cover of charitable organizations). More generally, in its appeal to "our common humanity" -- its recitation of largely discredited population statistics for Muslims in America and strikingly defensive declaration that "America and Islam are not exclusive" (who, after all, suggests this is the case?) -- the speech conjured up uneasy reminders of the "I'm OK, you're OK; we're all just moms and dads" speeches of previous failed attempts at public diplomacy.

This parallelism was perhaps most artificial in the president's discussion of the contours of the Arab-Israeli conflict. While no impartial observer can dispute the hardship of Palestinian life, it runs counter to history to suggest that Palestinians have "suffered in pursuit of a homeland," when, since 1937, Palestinian leaders have rejected no fewer than six proposals to achieve just that goal. Similarly, the president's statement about Palestinians who "wait in refugee camps . . . for a life of peace and security" says as much about Arab governments' indifference to their fate as the inability to reach a diplomatic solution with Israel. And the president's drawing of a connection from the Palestinian conflict with Israel to the fight for civil rights in America or the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa will be interpreted by many as an endorsement of the moral righteousness of the Palestinian cause, not -- as he apparently intended -- a call for strict nonviolence.

This focus on respect was not matched by a focus on interest. On no issue, except when discussing plans for economic development projects, did he go beyond generalities and offer specific policy initiatives or definitive positions. While the president said a lot, he also didn't say much, choosing to leave many critical questions unanswered: What is the U.S. view of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, for example, a party that may be peaceful (for now) but is not legal? What will be the U.S. position if the Hizballah-led alliance wins Lebanon's parliamentary elections? What will the United States do if Iran persists in its pursuit of nuclear weapons? What implications will there be for U.S. relations if Arab and Muslim autocrats do not move toward accountable, transparent, democratic rule? What will the United States do if Saudi Arabia, generally recognized as among the world's foremost violators of religious freedom, moves at glacial speed on its promised reforms? And, perhaps most importantly, how will the United States, as a global superpower, prioritize the various themes and interests the president outlined? On none of these issues did the president's speech reveal much.

What He Didn't Say

The Cairo speech was also notable for specific words the president did not say and references he did not make.

Most important was the absence of any reference to "the Muslim world" and a preference instead for the more accurate phrase "Muslim-majority countries." This recognition of the continued primacy of states and an implicit rejection of the Islamist objective of a global caliphate that unites all Muslims in a single, supranational entity is a major step forward and should be commended.

Now that "Muslim world" has been banished from the lexicon, the next textual improvement he should make is to distinguish between his defense of Muslims and defense of Islam. While the U.S. government has a strong interest in preserving and protecting the rights of Muslims to live freely and practice their religion, as we have done in Bosnia, Iraq, and elsewhere, it is unsettling for any president to suggest that "partnership between America and Islam must be based on what Islam is, not what it isn't." First, America partners with peoples and governments, not religions; second, the president executes the U.S. Constitution, he doesn't interpret the Quran. President Bush made the mistake of donning the mantle of "Imam-in-chief" when he applauded certain Muslim religious edicts (e.g., fatwas against violence) over edicts he didn't like (e.g., fatwas calling for resistance to U.S. forces in Iraq); President Obama risks the same mistake with language that suggests a relationship with a religion, rather than its adherents.

Surprisingly, in the capital of one of only two Arab countries at peace with Israel, the president made no reference to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, which celebrated its thirtieth anniversary this year, no reference to the courage and vision of Anwar Sadat, nor even a reference to the role of courageous leadership as an essential element of peacemaking. This was a lost opportunity and will be celebrated by some as a nod to Islamist antagonism toward Sadat.

On the Middle East peace process, the president notably avoided announcing a new plan to translate the Arab Peace Initiative into an operational process that would incentivize Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy through actions and commitments of Arab states. While he did make an important plea for Arab states to stop exploiting the conflict with Israel "to distract the people of Arab nations from other problems," he did not appear to press the matter or to demand clear and speedy action. Vagueness on this issue (and the president was very vague in this part of the speech) suggests he did not get from Saudi king Abdullah substantive commitments that could form the basis of a truly new approach.

Also on the peace process, the president roundly criticized Israeli settlement activity, but did not use the Cairo platform to repeat the specific demand to end "natural growth," perhaps the most contentious aspect of U.S. policy on the issue. Whether that suggests a willingness to engage with Israel on the issue is unclear.

In a discussion of tolerance and religious freedom, the president missed an opportunity by failing to celebrate the success of Muslims in India, home to the world's third-largest Muslim population.

Phrases Pregnant with Implication

As officials, diplomats, and scholars pore over the speech for hints of policies yet to come, two passages deserve special scrutiny:

In the peace process section, Obama said the following on Jerusalem: "[We should all work for the day] when Jerusalem is a secure and lasting home for Jews and Christians and Muslims, and a place for all of the children of Abraham to mingle peacefully together as in the story of Isra, when Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad (peace be upon them) joined in prayer." This sentence is a prima facie rejection of Israel's position that adherents of all faiths currently enjoy freedom and access in Jerusalem and, by its invocation of a Quranic vision of Jerusalem, will be interpreted in Muslim capitals as tilting toward an Arab/Muslim view of Jerusalem's eventual disposition.

On nuclear issues, Obama made a veiled reference to Arab charges of a U.S. double standard in focusing on Iran's nuclear ambitions while overlooking Israel's existing weapons. Some have cited a recent statement by a U.S. State Department official calling for Israel's inclusion in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as a sign that the Obama administration intends to address this issue directly, in a way certain to provoke tension with Jerusalem. In Cairo, however, Obama offered a different vision, suggesting that addressing Israel's nuclear capability falls under the heading of "America's commitment to seek a world in which no nations hold nuclear weapons." Israelis can happily live with that worthy -- and long-term -- goal.


Cairo marks President Obama's fifth major message to the world's Muslims -- following his inaugural address, early al-Arabiya television interview, Iranian New Year greetings, and speech to the Turkish parliament. Debates about the content of these remarks notwithstanding, no one can contest the fact that he has fulfilled a personal commitment to make "engagement" with Muslims a high priority. If there is any meaning to the phrase "mutual interest and mutual respect," America can now rightfully expect to hear and see what Muslims -- leaders and peoples -- say and do in response.

Now, here are some additional commentaries, as summarized in the Daily Alert:

The Cairo Appeal - Editorial

President Obama's address in Cairo offered an eloquent case for American values and global objectives - and it looked to be a skillful use of public diplomacy in a region where America's efforts to explain itself have often been weak. Mr. Obama uttered verses from the Koran, spoke about the success of U.S. Muslims, debunked extremists' claims and defended the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians. Mr. Obama's challenge will be to prevent Arab leaders from diverting the broad engagement he proposed into the narrow alley of the Mideast "peace process." Though the president warned against using the issue "to distract the people of Arab nations from other problems," some were already at it: "Arabs are waiting for pressure to be exerted on Israel," said Iraq's government spokesman. Mr. Obama's initiative will fail if Israel's compliance with U.S. demands becomes the stick by which Muslims measure the "new beginning" he offered. (Washington Post)

See also The Cairo Speech - Editorial (New York Times)

Obama in Cairo - Max Boot
Should Obama have summarized the real - as opposed to the air-brushed - history? Probably not. His point wasn't to settle historical accounts but to put the best face forward to the Muslim world. I thought he did an effective job of making America's case to the Muslim world. No question: He is a more effective salesman than his predecessor was. Which doesn't mean that his audience will buy the message. (Commentary)

Muslims Respond to Obama's Cairo Speech - Michael Slackman
Muslim listeners said they were struck by how skillfully Obama appropriated religious, cultural and historical references, including four quotations from the Koran and used Arabic greetings. "He spoke really like an enlightened leader from the region, more than like a foreigner," said Mustafa Hamarneh, the former director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan. (New York Times)

Using New Language, President Shows Understanding for Both Sides in Middle East - Glenn Kessler and Jacqueline L. Salmon
There was no mention of "terrorists" or "terrorism," just "violent extremists." In an Arab capital, he spoke of America's "unbreakable" bond with Israel and condemned anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, an apparent repudiation of the anti-Israeli rhetoric that periodically emanates from Iran. Yet he also seemed to draw an equivalence between Jewish and Palestinian suffering. The president said: "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements." Not since Jimmy Carter has a U.S. president in his own voice declared the settlements to be illegal, but Obama tiptoed very close to the line. Obama deftly referred to a "Jewish homeland," slightly different from Israel's demands that it be considered a Jewish state. (Washington Post)

Obama's Age of Moral Equivalence - Jonathan Tobin
To be Barack Obama is to be, as he says, a person who can see all issues from all sides. But the problem with the Arab-Israeli conflict is not that both sides won't listen to each other or give peace a chance. That might have been a good point to make prior to the signing of the Oslo peace accords in 1993 when Israel recognized the legitimacy of Palestinian aspirations and began the process of handing over large portions of the area reserved by the League of Nations for the creation of a Jewish National Home for the creation of a Palestinian equivalent. But Israel offered these same Palestinians a state in virtually all of the West Bank and Gaza as well as part of Jerusalem in 2000 and again in negotiations conducted by the government of Ehud Olmert just last year. So, the problem is not that the Israelis don't want the two-state solution that Obama endorsed in Cairo. Rather, it is, as Mahmoud Abbas said in Washington only a week ago, that the Palestinians aren't interested in negotiating with Israel. Even more obnoxious is his comparison of the Palestinians' plight to that of African-Americans in the U.S. before the civil rights era. Israelis have not enslaved Palestinians. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians rests on the latter's unwillingness to come to terms with the former's existence. The plight of Palestinians in Gaza is terrible, but it is a direct result of their own decision to choose war over peace, not a lack of understanding on the part of the Jews. (Commentary)

Do Obama's Words Reveal His Middle East Sympathies? - Peter Wallsten
With his speech in Cairo, Obama is laying bare more of his sympathies and inclinations in the volatile area of Middle East politics. Obama spoke, for example, of Palestinian "resistance" - a word that can cast Israel as an illegitimate occupier. Moreover, in his defense of Israel's legitimacy, Obama cited the Holocaust and centuries of anti-Semitism, but not the belief of some Jews that their claim to the land is rooted in the Bible and reaches back thousands of years. Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said Obama's remark that Jewish aspirations for a homeland were "rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied" was incorrect and "legitimizes the Arabs who say Israel has no place there." Several Jewish leaders described Obama's stance toward Iran's nuclear ambitions as too soft. (Los Angeles Times) See also Obama in Cairo - Melanie Phillips (Spectator-UK)

No comments: