Obama’s Cairo Speech: I Give It An “A”

President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo will go down as an historic game-changer in the history of the United States’ involvement in the Middle East.

Let me be clear: it changes the game for the better.

One effect of the speech will be to put a lie to the idea that the US is historically and essentially a force for ill in the region. As the historian Michael Oren—now Ambassador Michael Oren—points out in his seminal book, “Power, Faith and Fantasy,” a history of US involvement in the Middle East, America has often acted with the area’s best interest at heart. 

This speech echoes the concern, involvement and generosity that has marked the best of America’s efforts there.

While I’m critical of some particular aspects and emphases of Obama’s policies toward Israel—as I made clear in my print editorial this week— I think this speech helped improve America’s leverage among Israel’s enemies and reasserted, in no uncertain terms, America’s ultimate commitment to Israel’s security.

I think Jeffrey Goldberg put the carpers in their place with his blog over at The Atlantic:

“An African-American President with Muslim roots stands before the Muslim world and defends the right of Jews to a nation of their own in their ancestral homeland, and then denounces in vociferous terms the evil of Holocaust denial, and right-wing Israelis go forth and complain that the President is unsympathetic to the housing needs of settlers. Incredible, just incredible,” he wrote.

Abraham Rabinovich, who wrote one of the great histories of the Middle East conflict, hit the nail on the head with his analysis:

JERUSALEM – It may have been the most keenly anticipated speech delivered in the region since the Sermon on the Mount and Barak Obama rose to the occasion, even borrowing one of Jesus’ phrases from the sermon, “blessed are the peacemakers”.

        In a masterful talk, he managed to reduce the cosmic nature of the problems afflicting the Middle East to human proportions, making it seem possible, at least for the duration of the speech, that these are matters reasonable men can address and resolve.

        To the extent he succeeded in beginning to shift regional mindsets it was by presenting the president of the United States to his Moslem audience as someone who offered respect, someone who understood them, someone who was almost one of them. His Arabic middle name, low-keyed during his election campaign in the US, was here flaunted and so too his father’s Islamic roots. The occasional Arabic phrases he flashed and the frequent citations from the Koran and his portrayal of Islam as a religion of peace drew strong applause. He spoke clearly and his sincerity was palpable. This was no George Bush who was viewed even by his own countrymen through a glass wall of “otherness” and a cloud of confused rhetoric.

        While praising past Arab achievements and acknowledging the suffering of the Palestinians and the humiliation of living under occupation, he did not spare his audience hard truths.  In a phrase that struck at a central element of the Palestinian resistance mythos, he said “It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed, that is how it is surrendered.” Referring to the denial of the Holocaust by Iran’s leaders, he termed it “ignorant and hateful”.

        Palestinians drew solace from his pledge to support their efforts to achieve an independent state and to halt Israeli settlement activity.

        Israelis had been awaiting Obama’s speech with trepidation, fearful that they would be offered up on the altar of his reconciliation with the Moslem world. Except for settlers and right-wing elements, however, they were pleasantly surprised. The only “anti-Israel” element in his speech was his reference to settlements but the phrasing was, deliberately or not, strangely unclear. “The US does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements. It is time for these settlements to stop.” The first sentence could suggest a challenge to the continued existence of the 120 Israeli settlements in the West Bank whose legality the US has indeed never recognized. But the last two sentences seem to confine his remarks to the narrower question that has been dividing him and the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in recent weeks – stopping infill construction within the settlements.

        The most important element in the speech for Israel was not about its relation with the Arab world but its relation with the US. “America’s strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable.” Israelis had not been certain that Obama, because of his background, would reiterate that strong connection. Apart from its importance to Israel in economic and political terms to have Washington as a big brother, Obama’s statement was a significant signal to Iran and other hostile elements that Israel was not alone and is thus a major deterrent factor. Israelis were also appreciative of Obama confirming, from a podium watched by 1.5 billion Moslems, the authenticity of the Holocaust and pointing out its role in the motivation of the Jews to seek their own state in their ancestral homeland in the Middle East.

        Israel was less pleased with Obama’s references to Hamas, in which he appeared to recognize the militant Islamic group as a legitimate player, and his relatively soft words to Iran. His apparent readiness to see Iran access nuclear power for peaceful purposes, officials in Jerusalem warned, would bring it within a short sprint to a nuclear weapon. However, Obama’s benign tone appeared designed to bring Iran to the negotiating table. There was only one possible threat – “when it comes to nuclear weapons, we have reached a decisive point” – but it was implicit, not overt.

        After a series of peace initiatives in recent decades that have sputtered out, the region’s inhabitants are leery about getting emotionally involved with another before it begins to gain momentum. Nevertheless, in Cairo yesterday Barak Hussein Obama emerged for Arabs and Israelis as a Great White Hope.

Here’s a response from teh American Jewish Committee, which is as close to Jewish mainstream opinion as you’ll find on these matters:

June 4, 2009 – New York – AJC warmly welcomed President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo today, which aimed at forging a new understanding between the United States and the Muslim world.

While addressing a range of issues, President Obama underlined that the rejection of anti-Semitism and the legitimacy of Israel were not negotiable.

“In the heart of a region where denial is routine – denial of Israel’s right to exist, denial of the historic link of Jews to their homeland, denial of the Holocaust – President Obama spoke the truth with a clear, unwavering voice,” said David Harris, AJC Executive Director.

Obama told his audience: “Six million Jews were killed – more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, ignorant, and hateful. Threatening Israel with destruction – or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews – is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.”

Harris applauded Obama for reaffirming that America’s “strong bonds” with Israel are “unbreakable,” and for urging Arab states to “recognize Israel’s legitimacy.”

AJC praised President Obama for stating his personal commitment to pursue “with all the patience the task requires” a negotiated settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Toward that end, President Obama made clear that “violence is a dead end,” as he called again on Hamas to “put an end to violence, recognize past agreements, and recognize Israel’s right to exist.”

Harris praised Obama’s focus on Iran’s confrontation with the international community over its nuclear weapons drive – a confrontation the President said has reached “a decisive point.”

AJC is disappointed, however, that the President was not more explicit about the danger Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons poses to the entire Middle East and to global security.

“Iran’s theocratic regime is a world leader in supporting terrorism, threatening moderate Arab regimes, and orchestrating the chorus of extremists who deny Israel’s right to exist,” said Harris. “The U.S. has an obligation to more vigorously lead the international community in stopping the Iranian nuclear program.”

President Obama also noted the democracy, human rights and gender equality deficits in the Muslim world, urging greater protection of religious freedom and respect for democratic values. Harris urged the President to press forward with these causes, saying, “The Middle East will only flourish when people of all faiths live in free societies that respect their dignity and unleash their creative potential. The pursuit of peace will be impeded as long as the region’s one true democracy, Israel, is surrounded by dictatorships and theocracies.”