Obama's Cairo Address: Did It Live Up To the Hype?
President Obama journeyed to Cairo on Thursday to change the world -- or at least get the process of changing the world started. Such ambition in presidents is nothing new. We tend to imbue our chief executives with a combination of omnipotence and civic sainthood, seeing in them the living embodiment of our values and the standard bearer of our history and heritage.
Such a burden is carried differently by each man who has held the office, making their way through time with only their ambition and a supreme belief in their own abilities to accompany them. All have tried to make their mark on history, even as they ride history's whirlwind, being tossed mercilessly about as if on a bucking bronco until their time is up and they can slide off, or are thrown unceremoniously into the dirt.
President Obama decided to tempt the fates, grab history by the tail, and take on a task from which Hercules himself would have shied away: changing the perception of how the United States is viewed in the Muslim world.
The fact that this perception has been fed by the controlled press of the holy terrors who rule much of the Islamic world, as well as the holy men who seek to control their flocks through fear of the "crusader" and hate for the infidel, only made Obama's job of breaking through the ignorance and isolation that is the sad lot of most of the world's Muslims that much harder.
Even if you have a very low opinion of President Obama, I don't see how you can honestly criticize him for trying to alter the dynamic that currently exists between Islam and the West. And keeping in mind that we are at war with a large segment of Islam (much larger than the president would have ever dared say in public), the rhetorical tightrope that Obama was forced to walk between unequivocally condemning the extremists while attempting to placate the sensibilities and feelings of hypersensitive Muslims who believe they have been stereotyped as mad bombers was worthy of anything Barnum and Bailey could have produced.
There are many on both the left and right who are criticizing the president for making a speech that didn't accomplish anything or actually played into the hands of our enemies. While I found plenty that was objectionable in the speech, I think that kind of criticism misses the point.
As the president said, no one speech was going to change things. Rather, it was the fact that speech was made in the first place -- and where it was given -- that impacted the consciousness of the Muslim world. Right now, they're not listening to us -- even with our Lightworker president in office. Announcing to the world that the president of the United States was going to address the Muslim world and do it in a Muslim country at least got the planet's attention.
Every journey begins with a first step. And if the minimum President Obama could accomplish was to get the Muslim world to pause in their headlong dash toward history's gasoline dump with a stick of dynamite in their mouth and a fistful of lit matches while forcing them to listen to a few (too few, as it turned out) truths about Islam and the threat of extremists, then the president accomplished as much as could be expected.
Did the substance of the speech matter? As a gauge to our president's thinking -- how he sees the world and America's place in it -- it most certainly did. The address gave us a glimpse of the president's strategic sense. In places, it struck me as naive, such as his belief that the Palestinians can be convinced that "violence is a dead end" and that by following the path of the American civil rights movement they can see their aspirations fulfilled.
The fact that Palestinians have as much to fear from each other as they do the Israelis was left unsaid and only the barest mention was made that Hamas does not even recognize Israel's right to exist. On such specifics people live or die, and if our president believes that the Palestinians only need a Martin Luther King figure to lead them nonviolently to peace and happiness, he will be terribly disappointed.
The president demonstrated a similar naivete about Iran and his belief that any country -- including Iran -- "should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty." History has shown that once the nuclear enrichment genie is out of the bottle, it is impossible to prevent a country from building a bomb if they so desire.
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.