Obama's Cairo Address: Did It Live Up To the Hype?

The NPT is largely dependent on the good faith of signatories to comply with disclosure requirements and inspection regimes. Iran has so far fully complied with neither. As for good faith, it is impossible to trust a regime that has continually threatened to wipe an ally off the map while constructing facilities that even the timid International Atomic Energy Agency believes can be used for both military and peaceful purposes.

But the president also demonstrated that whether Muslims like it or not, the war on terror (or whatever we are calling it this week) will continue and he made it plain that Afghanistan and Pakistan are ground zero in that conflict. He was strong and unapologetic about defending the United States from extremism and threats to our citizens -- a straight from the shoulder, tell it like it is moment in the speech that occurred far too infrequently. While Obama did say some things that Muslims needed to hear from an American president, he was too timid -- or perhaps not brave enough -- in speaking truths in other areas especially relating to the support for extremism in the Muslim world and the separation that is necessary between church and state for Muslim societies to flourish.

His words on Iraq, torture, Guantanamo, and acting "contrary to our ideals" as a result of 9/11 were no doubt welcomed by Muslims but grated on many Americans' ears. Hanging our dirty laundry out to dry in a foreign country, especially when there is a domestic political argument raging at home over many of those same issues, smacks of pure pandering. Indeed, those words ended up giving him his biggest applause lines of the afternoon.

I realize his intent was to demonstrate that a new sheriff was in town and that change had come to Washington. But it was unseemly to make his points at the expense of his predecessor while many, who had no doubt either openly or secretly celebrated the 9/11 attacks, were sitting in his audience demonstrating their approval for the president's mea culpas. In my opinion, he let the Muslim world off too lightly. In his desire not to offend, he missed a golden opportunity to point out the raging contradictions between the religion of peace and the violence of the jihadists whose support in the Muslim world for inflicting damage on the West and Western interests is fairly broad and more commonplace than he was willing to admit.

That was the trouble with the speech overall. In typical Obama fashion, he said what he believed his audience wanted to hear, carefully avoiding offending anyone while gussying up ordinary platitudes about peace, cooperation, and the brotherhood of man by presenting them with soaring rhetorical flourishes. But in order to get the ball rolling on changing the Muslim-Western dynamic, the president is going to have to break some eggs. He is going to have to cut through the miasmic view that Muslims hold of their own place in the world and speak some hard truths about how allowing themselves to be used by their political and religious leaders to justify violence and oppression while clinging to the past is keeping them from fully participating in the modern world.

Obama and his speechwriters could probably craft an interesting address using only a phone book. Stylistically, they didn't disappoint in Cairo. The speech was extremely well organized with segues from topic to topic that were rhetorically smooth and logical. Thematically, there wasn't much to complain about as Obama stuck to tried and true universal concepts of shared aspirations and unity through common values. In many respects, the very ordinariness of its themes made the speech palatable and the words accessible to his target audience.

Was it a great speech? I subscribe to Theodore H. White’s view of what makes a great speech: Three elements have to be present for a political speech to achieve immortality. First, the moment in time must amplify the words spoken. Since Obama’s Cairo address had no dramatic event or backdrop, that alone would disqualify it from being considered on the same level as even the top 100 American speeches.

But the other factors that White believed made a great speech -- the place the address is given and the words themselves, which should be great both spoken and read -- came close to being fulfilled with Obama’s address. Martin Luther King speaking when he did and where he did acted as a gigantic megaphone for his words. Certainly Obama’s address will receive wide play around the world and the fact that he delivered it in a Muslim country will amplify the message. And the words in the speech itself will be seen in a context that guarantees the address will live beyond the daily news cycle.

In short, a good speech that could have been braver.