I watched or listened to most of President Obama’s speech live risking being late for work and I have been pondering it ever since. There is no doubt that the President gives great speeches and I believe that he laid out a foundation from which discussion can move forward. He also tries to speak truth to power. Someone I heard, probably on public radio, said that he created the space for dialogue with the Arab world, within Israel as well as between the two. People are saying that he didn’t say enough, that there was no new ground. I don’t see how that claim can be made.
I noticed a few things about the speech that I thought were new. First, he talked about the right of Iran to pursue a peaceful use of nuclear energy making a clear distinction between power and weapons. Second, he never used the word “terrorism”. He clearly stated that we were not at war with Islam. And, finally he talked about the suffering of the Palestinians – although he stopped short of calling what is going on in the camps and the recent Israeli offensive genocide. That would have been even more explosive than demanding that Israel stop building settlements. Here is some other reaction I found interesting.
The New York Times blog, The Lede, posted almost immediate reactions from some students in various parts of the Middle East. These included a nineteen year-old, Sulafah Al Shami, a Joradanian who generally admired the tone of the speech but wrote
As the speech addressed many issues ranging from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, the Palestinian-Israeli issue and diplomacy in the Middle East to education and women’s rights, it was very general but it I find it a jump start and sent the right signals to the Arab world. It touched on many important issues in the Arab world that have always had big question marks on them such as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the American invasion of Iraq. Obama promised change and acknowledged the fact that many people in the Middle East view America with fear and mistrust and this acknowledgment establishes understanding. But what was surprising to me is that despite the fact that President Obama continued to make references to American and Israeli history, he overlooked the fact that Palestine does have a history which includes decades of Israeli occupation and terror. A two-state solution seems realistic and reasonable but I believe that saying Israel has “legitimate aspirations” isn’t really accurate.
Another Igny Hassieb, also nineteen, but Egptian wrote
I like his positivity — the way he addressed the pros of Islam instead of the cons was a great and very logical way to start off. The way Islam is portrayed in the media right now is very one-sided and President Obama managed to acknowledge the distinction between extremism and Islam.
Now, this is very important and is something that was not touched upon by the Bush administration. Ever since 9/11 Islam has been portrayed in a very negative light, as the religion of terrorism, and no one had managed to change or at least begin to work on changing that view, until today.
Other student comments are posted on the Lede.
As for reaction here in the United States, Robert Dreyfuss points out in a very interested piece in the Nation,
But the neocons and the right, including the Republicans, are already denouncing Obama for undermining Israel, abandoning the holy democracy mission, and ending the Global War on Terror (GWOT). (My favorite quote is from the always entertainingly stupid Michael Rubin, of the American Enterprise Institute, who foamed at the mouth over Obama’s de-emphasis of Project Impose Democracy. “Bush can look in the mirror and know that he liberated fifty million people,” wrote Rubin, neglecting to mention that Bush killed about a million of them in the process. “Obama will look in the mirror and admire how handsome he is.”
Well. Perhaps the pudgy Rubin can’t do the same when he gazes into his bathroom mirror. But the emerging apoplexy on Planet Neocon is a sign that Obama did something right in Cairo. Interesting, isn’t it, that with Hamas praising Obama, the only criticism of the Cairo speech is coming from (1) the neocons and their allies, and (2) Osama bin Laden, who is clearly panicking about Obama’s play for mainstream and conservative Muslim opinion. Strange bedfellows, indeed.
Strange bedfellows indeed. And I say we need to build on the beginning made in the President’s speech by talking to each other. Action hopefully will follow. Richard Holbrooke is headed there soon.