The following is the full text of President Barack Obama’s speech, "A Moment of Opportunity," as prepared for delivery at the US Department of State, May 19, 2011.
I want to thank Hillary Clinton, who has traveled so much these last six months that she is approaching a new landmark—one million frequent flyer miles. I count on Hillary every day, and I believe that she will go down as of the finest Secretaries of State in our nation’s history.
The State Department is a fitting venue to mark a new chapter in American diplomacy. For six months, we have witnessed an extraordinary change take place in the Middle East and North Africa. Square by square; town by town; country by country; the people have risen up to demand their basic human rights. Two leaders have stepped aside. More may follow. And though these countries may be a great distance from our shores, we know that our own future is bound to this region by the forces of economics and security; history and faith.
Today, I would like to talk about this change—the forces that are driving it, and how we can respond in a way that advances our values and strengthens our security. Already, we have done much to shift our foreign policy following a decade defined by two costly conflicts. After years of war in Iraq, we have removed 100,000 American troops and ended our combat mission there. In Afghanistan, we have broken the Taliban’s momentum, and this July we will begin to bring our troops home and continue transition to Afghan lead. And after years of war against al Qaeda and its affiliates, we have dealt al Qaeda a huge blow by killing its leader—Osama bin Laden.
Bin Laden was no martyr. He was a mass murderer who offered a message of hate—an insistence that Muslims had to take up arms against the West, and that violence against men, women and children was the only path to change. He rejected democracy and individual rights for Muslims in favor of violent extremism; his agenda focused on what he could destroy—not what he could build.
Bin Laden and his murderous vision won some adherents. But even before his death, al Qaeda was losing its struggle for relevance, as the overwhelming majority of people saw that the slaughter of innocents did not answer their cries for a better life. By the time we found bin Laden, al Qaeda’s agenda had come to be seen by the vast majority of the region as a dead end, and the people of the Middle East and North Africa had taken their future into their own hands.
That story of self-determination began six months ago in Tunisia. On December 17, a young vendor named Mohammed Bouazizi was devastated when a police officer confiscated his cart. This was not unique. It is the same kind of humiliation that takes place every day in many parts of the world—the relentless tyranny of governments that deny their citizens dignity. Only this time, something different happened. After local officials refused to hear his complaint, this young man who had never been particularly active in politics went to the headquarters of the provincial government, doused himself in fuel, and lit himself on fire.
Sometimes, in the course of history, the actions of ordinary citizens spark movements for change because they speak to a longing for freedom that has built up for years. In America, think of the defiance of those patriots in Boston who refused to pay taxes to a King, or the dignity of Rosa Parks as she sat courageously in her seat. So it was in Tunisia, as that vendor’s act of desperation tapped into the frustration felt throughout the country. Hundreds of protesters took to the streets, then thousands. And in the face of batons and sometimes bullets, they refused to go home—day after day, week after week, until a dictator of more than two decades finally left power.