Thursday, June 04, 2009

Obama's Cairo Speech: Initial Thoughts

I've read the text of the speech, and I think it's really good- concise, and far-reaching, and shows a real good-faith attempt to step up to the plate on the key issues:

One of Obama's chief themes here is building (rebuilding?) bridges between Islam and the West:

We meet at a time of tension between the United States and Muslims around the world – tension rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate. The relationship between Islam and the West includes centuries of co-existence and cooperation, but also conflict and religious wars. More recently, tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations. Moreover, the sweeping change brought by modernity and globalization led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam.

Violent extremists have exploited these tensions in a small but potent minority of Muslims. The attacks of September 11th, 2001 and the continued efforts of these extremists to engage in violence against civilians has led some in my country to view Islam as inevitably hostile not only to America and Western countries, but also to human rights. This has bred more fear and mistrust.

So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, and who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity. This cycle of suspicion and discord must end.
I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.

I do so recognizing that change cannot happen overnight. No single speech can eradicate years of mistrust, nor can I answer in the time that I have all the complex questions that brought us to this point. But I am convinced that in order to move forward, we must say openly the things we hold in our hearts, and that too often are said only behind closed doors. There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground. As the Holy Koran tells us, "Be conscious of God and speak always the truth." That is what I will try to do – to speak the truth as best I can, humbled by the task before us, and firm in my belief that the interests we share as human beings are far more powerful than the forces that drive us apart.

Good balance here, although Obama's critics may choose to interpret the line about sweeping change causing certain Muslims to view the West with hostility as showing weakness--but Obama makes sure to point out that such a view is invalid.

Many will no doubt take issue with Obama calling the Koran the Holy Koran (of course many of those same people will take issue with the idea of engaging the Muslim world in the first place), but if you read the whole text, you'll see that he is trying to show reverence to all faiths. He explains his unique background:

Part of this conviction is rooted in my own experience. I am a Christian, but my father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims. As a boy, I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the azaan at the break of dawn and the fall of dusk. As a young man, I worked in Chicago communities where many found dignity and peace in their Muslim faith.

Obama goes out his way to quote the Koran to make his case. He then proceeds to expound on the contributions of mainstream Islam, and gives a sound defense of American values, and how Muslims ought to appreciate those values and contributions.

I thought his words on tolerance and religious liberty were good, although I found this interesting, and kind of strange:

We cannot disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretence of liberalism.

Pretense of liberalism? That just sounds so strange the way he says that. Later, he begins to delve into specific policy points, particularly on Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq:

Unlike Afghanistan, Iraq was a war of choice that provoked strong differences in my country and around the world. Although I believe that the Iraqi people are ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, I also believe that events in Iraq have reminded America of the need to use diplomacy and build international consensus to resolve our problems whenever possible. Indeed, we can recall the words of Thomas Jefferson, who said: "I hope that our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us that the less we use our power the greater it will be."

Today, America has a dual responsibility: to help Iraq forge a better future – and to leave Iraq to Iraqis. I have made it clear to the Iraqi people that we pursue no bases, and no claim on their territory or resources. Iraq's sovereignty is its own. That is why I ordered the removal of our combat brigades by next August. That is why we will honor our agreement with Iraq's democratically-elected government to remove combat troops from Iraqi cities by July, and to remove all our troops from Iraq by 2012. We will help Iraq train its Security Forces and develop its economy. But we will support a secure and united Iraq as a partner, and never as a patron.

As one who supported the war in Iraq, I'm glad that he acknowledges that Iraq is better off without Saddam, and while one needn't at all be a supporter of the war to agree with that sentiment, I find it interesting that if he had made this speech a year ago, many war critics would be vexed. I'm also glad that he has stuck to his responsible withdrawal plan (as I predicted he would), although Stephen Hayes does kind of have a point on this:

In a speech about freedom and democracy, America and Islam, Obama glides right past the most remarkable development in the region in decades: "Iraq's democratically-elected government." He mentions it only in passing, to note that he's keeping his campaign promised to remove troops...the fact that he can even use that phrase -- Iraq's democratically-elected government -- might have caused him to acknowledge that America's intervention there, despite the tremendous difficulties, has made Iraq a country that practices many of those things that he seeks for the rest of the region.

Now, I don't think it's fair to suggest that Obama didn't really acknowledge Iraq, but it's probably true that he could have been more specific with regards to the success of the surge, and exactly true that the situation in Iraq now would be near impossible without it.

On Israel, things get a bit more dicey. I've no doubt about Obama's pro-Israel bona fides. I think he is really trying to strike the right balance here, so while I think he loses me a bit when he talks about "the daily humiliations – large and small – that come with occupation," I think he's trying to do the right thing. My issue with lines like that is that it can leave the impression that Israel is somehow to blame for the Palestinians present condition. I get what he's saying for the most part, and I think the right-wing criticism is just out of line. Maybe he could've mentioned Hamas and Hezbollah a few more times, but some of the criticisms (more here, here, and here) laid at his feet are really over the top. As Zalman Shoval said, there is no reason for panic.

At the end of the day, it was a good speech, and had Obama's classic rhetorical skill. That being said, speeches are just that--speeches, and he himself pointed out, they must be backed up by sound action.

More thoughts forthcoming.

Kudos to Sully for the speech reaction h/t's, and to Althouse for the speech link.

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