I had feared worse. Much worse. To be sure, parts of it lived up to my fears and expectations, but there’s a lot that I like. So that while this is certainly not a speech I would deliver, it is a lot better than the one I feared, and I can promise you that leading Muslims are very upset with several parts of it.
President Obama’s most explosive words were about women. He called for equal rights, stressing education, and promising American support for such programs. There is no theme in the Middle East that is more threatening to the misogynist political and religious leaders. If there is any real hope for freedom and democracy in the region, it will be accomplished by the women and their supporters, and the current leaders dread it. I wonder if Obama knows it. If so, full marks to him. But even if he doesn’t, even if he thinks he was simply reciting an intuitively obvious commonplace, he sent chills up and down the spines of the region’s rulers.
He wasn’t eager to embrace Bush’s call for democracy, but he got there anyway, albeit grudgingly. He trotted out one of his favorite multiculti themes (“no system of government can or should be imposed by one nation by any other”), but he reminded his listeners of the enormous success of America and Americans, and of our revolutionary heritage: “The United States has been one of the greatest sources of progress that the world has ever known. We were born out of revolution against an empire.” And, using words that any neocon must applaud, he promised American support for freedom...everywhere.
“...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. And that is why we will support them everywhere.”
And he stressed that democracy requires more than just elections; governments’ legitimacy depends on the consent of the governed:
“You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion. You must respect the rights of minorities and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise. You must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party.
Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.”
Quite right. And for once, in a speech that often oozed vagueness, he got specific, referring to the need to respect the rights of Copts (targeted by Egyptian Muslims) and Maronites (targeted by Lebanese Muslims).
For those who expected him to put some distance between the United States and Israel, Obama matter-of-factly stated: there is an unbreakable bond between the two countries. Like others, I wish he had stressed the commitment to democracy that binds us, and I was appalled by his slide into moral equivalence (at one point seeming to compare the Holocaust with Israel’s reaction to Palestinian terrorism; if he really wanted to make a fair comparison, he should have compared Palestinian refugees with Jewish ones from Arab lands), but his straightforward, unambiguous and unequivocal support for the Jewish State was exemplary, as was his call for Israel’s enemies to abandon violence and accept her existence. He doesn’t like the settlements. Lots of American presidents and secretaries of state have said the same thing, as have lots of Israelis.