President Obama’s much-anticipated speech to the Muslim world in Cairo last Thursday demonstrated once again that he is an extraordinarily skilled orator working with fantastic speech writers. The speech also underscored the distinctly different approach his administration plans to take in handling U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Quoting the Koran, the Bible, and the Torah, President Obama laid out a plan that basically came down to a simple message: “We’re all in this together and we must all do our part.”
But what exactly did he mean by “do our part”? In the context of the economic downturn in the U.S., this same message has translated into spending more wisely, living more responsibly, and working together as a community to balance the inequities between the haves and the have-nots. In a more diverse global context, similarly marred by economic uncertainty, the translation is not so clear. With respect to what the president labeled as the number one task at hand—ending violent extremism—he pointed out that one solution is to acknowledge that Islam and Muslims are not part of the problem, but rather part of the solution. To that end, he called on all Muslims to join in the effort to end the violence that has wreaked havoc on their religion and the global community. As for the second most important task—resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—he acknowledged the unbreakable bond between Israel and the U.S. but remained steadfast in his message that everyone must do his share in reaching a sustainable future in the Middle East, including the U.S., Israel, Palestine, and the other Arab states.
The president’s speech was even-handed, addressing issues that are important for Muslims, for Christians, and for Jews; for men and for women; for those living abroad and for those in the United States. His tenor was one of fairness and progress.
His message was packed with ideas and objectives, but it was much less generous in offering explicit action. Maybe offering action items was not the point. Maybe the point was to lay a comprehensive agenda for the future, a conceptual framework if you will, from which to draw well-conceived action. Maybe the speech was intentionally geared to motivate people to see the bigger picture beyond the individual circumstances and issues that affect their daily lives—in essence, to motivate the global community to look beyond the trees and see the forest of issues that impacts us all. There were a lot of important issues on the table, ranging from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, to gender equality in the Middle East and the United States. And there were millions of people around the world listening to the president’s thoughts on these issues.
Reactions from these listeners were somewhat mixed, maybe due to the even-handedness off the speech—some wanted to hear less talk and see more walk. Some wanted to hear more (or less) favoritism toward Israel. Some went in as strong supporters of the president and some went in as strong detractors. Nonetheless, most agree that the president’s speech showed movement in the right direction, particularly in relation to the past eight years.
In the end, only time will tell if the president’s issue-laden agenda will translate into real change. He should start by focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If he can make some headway there, other issues in the Middle East will start to fall into place.