Barack Obama's remarkable speech in Cairo yesterday may or may not mark a "new beginning" in America's relations with the Muslim world. Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Israel/Palestine: it's not hard to imagine scenarios in each of these places that will make people forget his words. But one thing the speech clearly did mark was a dramatic shift in tone, and not merely because Obama didn't mention the word "terrorism" and projected respect and humility rather than the sneering arrogance (laced with ignorance and condescension) that prevailed under George W. Bush. More broadly, the messianic era of the Bush era appears to be over. A new age of tempered realism – or, perhaps, tempered idealism – has begun.
Here, for example, was Obama on democracy: "No system of government can or should be imposed by one nation by any other." Brent Scowcroft and Henry Kissinger were surely smiling. But so were progressives who cringed every time George W. Bush invoked his messianic "freedom agenda" in recent years. Obama did not downplay the importance of freedom. He recast it as something that evolves organically in different societies as people aspire to fulfill their dreams. "America does not presume to know what is best for everyone," he said. "But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights."
This is a vision tinged with pragmatism and - daringly, for a US President - colored by an awareness that people who have yearned for these things in the past have often been prevented from having them by the West. A mere dozen lines into his address, Obama spoke of "colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations." A cynic might say these were mere words, offered by the same man who has increased the US troop presence in Afghanistan and delayed the withdrawal from Iraq. My sense is that the sentiments reflect what Obama actually believes, culled as much from his experience of growing up in parts of the developing world and being the son of an African as from briefing papers and books.
Back in 2007, James Traub argued that if a "single sentiment" stood at the heart of Obama's worldview, it was the belief that "there's no contradiction between idealism and realism." He spoke this way in Cairo about issues such as religious freedom and women's rights, emphasizing the practical benefits as much as the abstract principles. An argument can be made that this is ultimately too neat, a seamless vision that ignores the gap in values and interests that will continue to divide states and the hard choices that invariably exist. In fact, Obama has already made choices (see: modified military commissions) that contradict his purported ideals. Still, it's refreshing to hear a President announce to the Muslim world that he understands America has no monopoly on virtue and that freedom will spread, if it spreads, because citizens everywhere fight for it.