Obama in power (10): Cairo – brilliant speech but that awkward question persists

President Obama’s speech in Cairo on 4 June offers further evidence of his unrivalled communication skills and of his will and capacity to address thorny issues by reframing and reshaping them in a way that offers new openings for change and improvement. As an opening to the Muslim world, is it possible to imagine an American president doing better given the realities in which he works? For many of the issues he raised, the question is if interlocutors and counterparts will step forward able to use the opportunities he is creating. And over Israel and Palestine, that is a familiar and awkward question.

Addressing the tough problems…

For different people, the speech will probably stand out and stick in the memory for different reasons. For me, what is most notable is not the repeated statements of respect for Islam nor his call for “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims.” These themes were, after all, covered when he spoke to the Turkish Grand National assembly on 6 April. Nonetheless, Obama does give a convincingly authentic, individual angle to these themes by drawing on his family background and personal history to explain their resonance for him. What might just be flights of rhetoric from another fine speaker sound real from him.

Nor do I find the speech particularly notable for Obama’s call for an end to mutual stereotyping by the US and Muslims; in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Bush tried to strike the same note. Obama’s extension of the argument into a straightforward assertion of the interdependence of the US and the Muslim world is praiseworthy and reflects a universal value to which he often refers but, again, for me it is not the most striking thing about the speech.

What really got my attention was that Obama did not leave these calls for new openings, respect, and end to stereotyping and the recognition of interdependence at the level of abstract generalities. Far from it. He insists on recognising the problems about which there is the most hostility and tension and talking them through in detail.

…through dialogue…

Anybody can call for hard issues to be handled in a dialogue. There are many different kinds of dialogue – or perhaps it is more accurate to say, the label of dialogue can be applied to a lot of different encounters, in many of which no exchange of views or increase of understanding occurs. These are dialogues of the deaf, which in my experience too often precede the dialogue of the dead. So I find it impressive when the idea of dialogue is properly laid out.

The structure of Obama’s speech is interesting. There are some appropriate flourishes in the first paragraph and then he gets down to business with the first sentence of the second paragraph: “We meet at a time of tension between the United States and Muslims around the world – tensions rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate.”

A couple of paragraphs later he says, “So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred,” and calls for “this cycle of suspicion and discord” to end. This won’t happen, he acknowledges, overnight or with a single speech. But “we must say openly to each other the things we hold in our hearts” and “there must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other.”

It is dialogue when two parties say what they think about the core of their problem as carefully and clearly as they can and listen as carefully and patiently as they can, learning through this process more about the other and more about themselves.

I don’t think it is in any way an over-reading of the text of Obama’s Cairo speech to say that is exactly what he has called for. 

Will Arab and other Muslim interlocutors and counterparts now step forward to respond to that invitation?

…about the substance of the issues

The first quarter or thereabouts of Obama’s speech sets up the point where he uses interdependence as the argument for addressing problems in partnership. This cannot mean ignoring the sources of tension, he argues: “Indeed it suggests the opposite: we must face these tensions squarely.” And he proceeds to do so, working his way for the rest of the speech until the final eloquent sign-off through seven issues:

  • violent extremism and the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 
  • Israel and Palestine,
  • nuclear weapons proliferation and Iran,
  • democracy – its desirability, the impossibility of imposing it through force and the unacceptability of trying,
  • religious freedom,
  • the rights of women,
  • and economic development.

On each of these Obama has some important things to say. And on economic development in the Middle East he sets out some important offers of US scientific and technological investment. And on each of these issues, Arab and Muslim interlocutors also have important things to say, some of them very pointed.

When these issues and possibly others are addressed in similarly frank terms by diverse voices in the Middle East, will the Obama administration listen as well and as patiently as he wants the Muslim world to listen to him? Will the US body politic and the media be able to listen patiently and open-mindedly?

Dialogue is a two-way process or it is nothing at all.

What we came to hear 

Obama was undoubtedly right to take a wide-ranging approach in his speech. It needed to be about more than Afghanistan, Iraq and the issue of Israel and Palestine. But it also had to be about them in particular or he would have been rightly accused of ducking the tough questions.

On Iraq and Afghanistan…

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were discussed within the question of violent extremism and the US response to it. I wondered whether it was right for this to come first and for it to be the longest treatment of the seven sections on the issues. The answer may depend on what can reasonably be expected of a US president. I have been here before in earlier posts under the “Obama in power” rubric. My starting point was and remains that whatever else he is, however striking a figure, and however pleased most of the world was when he was elected, he is when all is said and done the American President and that implies realities and constraints that he cannot evade. he can push the envelope but cannot tear it up. If he tries, the system will turn against him in a second. So while I might not think that violent extremism is the first and biggest issue that US and Muslim voices need to confront together, it does not surprise me that the American President thinks it is.

And if I think about it a bit more, I think I might be suspicious if he didn’t put it front and centre. It’s what he is supposed to be most concerned about, it’s what he’s paid for. Demoting it could look too much like playing to the gallery.

Obama drew a politically shrewd distinction between the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that could turn out to be strategically explosive. The distinction is that the war in Afghanistan was forced upon the US because of the 9/11 attacks whereas the invasion of Iraq was “a war of choice that provoked strong differences in my country and around the world.” Without damning Bush et al by name, Obama was able to remain true to his opposition to the war. Neatly done.

But it could be strategically explosive because, by contrast to Iraq, Afghanistan is, he says, a war the US has to fight. It was inevitable that the US would respond forcefully to the 9/11 attacks but in fact it didn’t have to take that form, and Obama has come within a whisker of saying that not only was the response necessary but that it was necessary to take the form it has done. This could mean war extended over a very long period. I find myself wondering whether this is going to turn round and bite Obama in years to come.

While the distinction has been made particularly sharply in this speech, it is not new. The view that Afghanistan was the right war and Iraq the wrong war has long been held by many Americans, especially Democrats, and was the heart of the criticism that Bush’s war in Iraq was a distraction from the real business of confronting violent extremism. So even Obama is potentially boxing himself in over Afghanistan, that is not the product of this speech.

And drawing the distinction so sharply does give the US some useful room for manoeuvre in relations with Arab and other Muslim states for the next several years. 

…and on Israel and Palestine

Obama spoke eloquently about some of the issues in the Israel-Palestine conflict, especially about the history of suffering on both sides. He attacked holocaust deniers and emphasised both the Palestinian “displacement brought on by Israel’s founding” and “the daily humiliations – large and small – that come with occupation.”

But as to the solution of the conflict, there was nothing new. Perhaps that is right. Perhaps two states, the road map agreed in 2003 and the Arab Peace Initiative of the year before are essentially all there is. To get there he said, “Palestinians must abandon violence” and “It is time for these settlements to stop.”

Nothing new there then, is the unfortunate and widely shared response. And there is nothing new even in the ambiguity about the settlements. When Obama says, “It is time for these settlements to stop,” does he mean it is time to stop building new ones? And/or does he mean it is time to stop expanding the existing ones? And/or does he man it is time for an end to all the settlements? And does he define settlements to exclude new building in and around east Jerusalem?

Just about everybody I have spoken to on visits to Israel and the West bank acknowledge that the two-state solution is the only solution. That is confirmed by opinion polling among both Israelis and Palestinians. But with each passing week and month, the persistence, growth and increase of the settlements along with the way the major roads for settlers slice the West Bank into a mish-mash make the potential Palestinian state that bit less viable.

The big ugly question

The Israel-Palestine conflict is not the biggest in the world nor even in the Middle East. But it touches on so many issues and so many conflicts that making tangible progress towards resolving it is central to the prospects of regional peace and security and of a much wider range of political issues.

So it is consistently the litmus test of policy towards the Middle East. And here the Obama speech was feel a little flat, not because it did not offer a new solution – that would have unwise to launch in a major speech, catching regional leaders unawares – and not because of any deficiency within the speech itself. 

The ugly question that hangs over this whole issue is, what is it that gets Israel to go along with two states and an end to occupation and the settlements now that wasn’t there before?

It is as simple as that and as complicated. Obama made a brilliant speech but if it is going to be followed through properly, he needs to bring something to the table that moves Israel in a new way. 

And the beginnings of an answer

If US opinion acknowledges the cogency and urgency of what Obama said in Cairo, then perhaps the groundwork is being laid for future progress. The US domestic arena remains the key place for these arguments to unfold. 

Perhaps that seems like a message of hopelessness and also a conclusion that the key to the Middle East’s future lies outside the region. Yet if regional interlocutors and counterparts can come forward for the dialogue that Obama has invited them to, that may be the best way of a new major strand of American opinion, which is perhaps already emerging, according to some commentators, shaping a new less partisan and more productive approach to the Israel-Palestine issue.

2 responses to “Obama in power (10): Cairo – brilliant speech but that awkward question persists

  1. There was an interesting debate on the BBC Today programme discussing the parallels and differences between Obama’s speech, and Tony Blair’s “intervention” speech ten years ago in Chicago.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_8086000/8086786.stm

    The other interesting aspect of Obama’s speech was his affirmation of non-violent civil disobedience as a motor for change. Rhetoric flourish perhaps?

  2. Thanks for the link and comment. What Obama said on non-violence was, “Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed.” He want on to back up the second part of that point by saying black people in the US did not get “full and equal rights” through violence, adding, “This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia.”

    I wouldn’t say this is empty words but it is, to put it no higher than, a convenient argument. As an account of black people getting equal rights, it conveniently omits the Civil War. As an argument based on what works, it ignores the times non-violence did not work. As a moral stance, he doesn’t apply it to America’s response to 9/11.

    But whatever one thuinks of Obama’s raising of it in this speech, there is an important discussion to be had about doing politics non-violently, not in Palestine and in some other Middle Eastern contexts, as well as more widely.

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