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Belmont Club

The Cairo speech

June 4th, 2009 - 6:04 pm

The Christian Science Monitor describes the intent of Barack Obama’s speech at Cairo as an effort “to hold the mirror up to all of the communities with whom he was speaking”. President described the dramatis personae on the Middle Eastern stage; nations, creeds, weapons and peoples — including America — and painted them all in both light and shadow and concluded in essence, that ‘why can’t we all get along’?

Obama’s 55-minute address was heavily promoted by the White House, both in the US and the Middle East. Given its importance, it is almost certain that Obama and his speechwriters considered carefully every phrase, nuance, and emphasis.

In general, the speech appeared to be an effort to get everyone in the region to take a hard look at themselves. Thus he talked about Islamic extremism, Holocaust denial, and the lack of women’s rights in many Middle Eastern countries. But he also talked about Israel’s responsibilities to displaced Palestinians.

“I think the most important thing people should take away from this speech was that the president really tried to hold the mirror up to all of the communities with whom he was speaking,” said Steven Cook, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, in a published analysis of the talk.

And indeed, why not? But Obama’s speech recalled another event that is not mentioned in any of the three monotheistic scriptures. The Greeks tell the story of how, at the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, Eris the goddess of Discord, was uninvited, and threw in the midst of the revelers an Apple of Discord, inscribed with the words “for the fairest one”. Metaphorically present at Cairo was Discord in the guise of Obama himself. Woven in and among his suave phrases were the hard and jarring issues that roiled the region: the Arab-Israeli conflict; Iranian (and by implication Israeli) nuclear ambitions, Islamic extremism, despotism, women’s rights and the right to worship freely. By raising these issues and pelting them among the crowd, Obama must have intended to provoke movement. The question is, what kind? Many of these apples have already been snatched up by the guests at the party, each thinking that the “fairest” refers to them. Reuters reports on the reactions to Obama’s speech from the Palestinian President.

“His call for stopping settlement and for the establishment of a Palestinian state, and his reference to the suffering of Palestinians … is a clear message to Israel that a just peace is built on the foundations of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.”

An Iraqi government spokesman said, “I think there is clear support of a right for a Palestinian state, and their right for a life, but Arabs are waiting for pressure to be exerted on Israel so it can stop its violations in Gaza and the West Bank.” Even the reaction of Republicans has been recorded.

House Minority Leader John Boehner blasted Obama’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian question. “He seemed to … place equal blame on the Israelis and the Palestinians. I have concerns about this,” the Ohio Republican said. “The Israelis have the right to defend themselves.” Boehner’s Republican colleague, Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, added that “there was a sense in here of a moral equivalency between those who are driving for a Palestinian state and the state of Israel.”

They can’t all be right. There is the obvious danger that Obama’s speech will provide a source of legitimacy for various contending parties. If even the Devil can quote scripture, all kinds of people can quote Obama. Obama himself acknowledged at the close of his remarks the fact that his speech was not an end, but a beginning. Any student of history who says, “blessed are the peacemakers” knows that it is usually made after, and not before the issues have been settled. Obama said:

We have the power to make the world we seek, but only if we have the courage to make a new beginning, keeping in mind what has been written. 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.”

And where must we start on this road? Here is where the stones begin to tug at our feet. With the assurance that “America is not — and never will be — at war with Islam”, even though Sunni and Shia may be at war with each other; that “no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other” though Hezbollah advances to power in Lebanon behind the shadow of Syrian bayonets; that succor must come to those who “endure the daily humiliations — large and small — that come with occupation”, meaning Israeli occupation of course; that “Islam has a proud tradition of tolerance” — how many of the millions of Filipino contract workers in Saudi Arabia were listening to the President’s words in churches across the kingdom? that “any nation — including Iran — should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty” — but has it?

Obama’s speech as rhetoric was musical. But as history it will be judged by whether it starts things off along the right track. Will it facilitate disarming Iran? Will it lead to security for Israel and the Arabs? Can it bring more democracy to the Middle East? Will it dampen the fires of Islamic extremism? A journey is judged both by its end and by its route. A guide is not paid according to his depiction of the glories at the resting well. We shall have peace, but as Obama reminds us, not yet. The golden apple shall be awarded to the fairest but if the ceremony, disturbingly enough must be held in Jerusalem, then who shall weep and who rejoice in that future? In Cairo Obama vouchsafed his audience a glimpse of a shining city on a hill. The practical question that must be asked is whether the guide, having pointed north has not turned directly on his heel and marched south.


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