I watched President Obama’s Cairo speech from Dubai, the sprawling and frenzied city of gold and shopping malls on the shores of the Arabian–er, Persian–Gulf. (I’m on my way to Tehran tomorrow, to report on the July 12 presidential elections there, and I’d better keep my “Arabian” and “Persian” Gulfs straight.)
Based on early returns from a decidedly unrepresentative sample of Arab public opinion, Obama hit a home run. I agree. (Incidentally, it’s not easy to find Arabs in Dubai, a desert kleptocracy run by a super-rich ruling clan, whose population is overwhelmingly from South Asia, East Asia, southern Sudan, and other parts of Africa.) In Dubai, at least, and in its media, Obama’s speech was topic one, two and three all week.
That’s good and bad. Obama’s arrival in Saudi Arabia and Egypt was greeted in two ways. First, it had the trappings of a visit by an all-powerful but distant Great White Father–okay, he’s black, but anyway–on whose words the fate of the Arab and Muslim world hangs, which is understandable in light of the fact that American troops and sailors are everywhere. And second, in contrast, sophisticated Arab opinion was truly hopeful that Obama’s remarks would make concrete the sharp break with the Imperial America as represented by the administration of George W. “Crusader” Bush. I think the latter prevailed. Obama was appropriately humble, and he laid down important markers that signal a new U.S. approach to the Middle East and beyond.
And, as CNN reported, “No one threw a shoe at his head.”
He acknowledged the current state of tension, along with the history of colonialism and Cold War power politics that treated Muslim nations as chess pieces. He correctly laid the root of the tension on the Muslim world’s reaction, especially among conservatives and the Islamic right, to “modernity and globalization.” He acknowledged that a speech doesn’t change everything. He quoted the Quran, and he spoke eloquently of the West’s (and the world’s) debt to Islamic civilization. “I have known Islam on three continents,” he said. And he added: “Islam is part of America.” Words, true – but words that I have been waiting for a long time to have heard from a president of the United States.
With Osama bin Laden’s recent communiqué still echoing, Obama drew out the contrast between Islam and bin Laden’s version of “violent extremism.” He said that the United States has no designs on Afghanistan and no plans to establish permanent bases there. And on Iraq, he said the same: “We pursue no bases, and no claim on their territory or resources”–i.e.,, oil. And he reiterated that all U.S. forces will be out of Iraq by 2012. (All of this, of course, will require some insistence by American voters and the “Arab and Muslim street” to hold Obama to his promises.)
But it was on Palestine that Obama hit the gong:
For more than 60 years they’ve 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. And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.
How long has it been since a president spoke movingly about Palestinian suffering? And in a speech so high profile, even game-changing?
He even nodded to Hamas, acknowledging that Hamas has support among the Palestinians, and – amazingly – did not refer to the organization as a “terrorist group.” And, of course, he kept up the pressure on Israeli expansionism by yet again slamming the settlements in the occupied territories – an issue, that likely as not, will bring down Bibi Netanyahu’s right-wing government.
On Iran, Obama stated clearly that Iran has the right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Indeed, it is precisely that issue that will be at the core of the coming U.S.-Iran dialogue, since for Iran its ability to enrich uranium on Iranian soil is a no-compromise concern. Yet there are plenty of ways to finesse, regulate, and internationalize that.
On democracy, Obama said that “there is no straight line” to create representative governments in the Muslim world, such as Egypt – meaning that he won’t push too hard, a la Bush and the neoconservatives, for instant democratic transformation. I think he hit precisely the right note.
His closing was pure Obama:
The Holy Koran tells us: “O mankind! We have created you male and a female; and we have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another.”
The Talmud tells us: “The whole of the Torah is for the purpose of promoting peace.”
The Holy Bible tells us: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”
The people of the world can live together in peace. We know that is God’s vision. Now that must be our work here on Earth.
Okay, it’s a speech. But it’s a good start.