Great Expectations – Obama and the Middle East

by Jeff Fleischer

(BuzzFlash, June 12, 2009)


At Cairo University, the phrase “Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States” was greeted with a standing ovation and chants of the president’s name. For all the discussion of the speech, as a society we’re underestimating just what a historic turn of events that is.

Also lost in the reams of post-speech analysis was a simple key to the effectiveness of Obama’s address as an outreach exercise. That is, the very simplicity of the speech.

Perhaps the highlight of the 2008 presidential race was Obama’s address on race in Philadelphia, where he said things long acknowledged by many but not previously said by a viable candidate for the presidency. The speech in Cairo followed a similar blueprint. The concepts it covered were not new or groundbreaking; the newness was their being said by the president of the United States.”I know there’s been a lot of publicity about this speech, but no single speech can eradicate years of mistrust, nor can I answer in the time that I have this afternoon all the complex questions that brought us to this point,” Obama said in opening. “But I am convinced that in order to move forward, we must say openly to each other 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.”

One way Obama did that was speaking to people in their own terminology. It’s a tactic so obvious and effortless that it’s routinely used by everyone from business consultants to touring musicians (“Great to be here in Cleveland”). Even George W. Bush was no stranger to this — in an otherwise overwhelmingly ill-received 2003 speech in Australia, he got brief cheers by calling his own slang “Texan for fair dinkum.”

But with very rare exceptions like his short-lived plan to have American schoolchildren donate $1 for aid to their Afghan peers, Bush usually had a tin ear when it came to discourse about the Middle East and Central Asia, absentmindedly using words such as “crusade” or labeling all armed opposition to the Iraq invasion “terrorism.” Obama wisely did the opposite. In an easy rhetorical flourish, the president used phrasings from Islam, whether quoting the Koranic proverb to “be conscious of God and speak always the truth” or inserting “peace be upon them” after describing a legendary meeting between Jesus, Moses, and Mohammed.

These lines did not herald the announcement of an ambitious new program, but drew loud applause because they showed the president was at least thinking about how his words would be received. A small matter, but a big improvement from his predecessor.

Obama also did a service to the discourse by addressing the actual problems America faces in the Middle East.

For much of the past decade, even high-minded news programs have repeatedly asked two of the stupidest questions to enter the public debate when it comes to terrorism — “Why do they hate us?” and “Why don’t moderate Muslims do something?” The first ignored both Osama bin Laden’s own words and the research of the CIA’s Al Qaeda team, which agreed that the presence of permanent American bases in Saudi Arabia, years after they were allegedly going to close, prompted Al Qaeda to turn against the United States. The second ignored a series of long, ongoing struggles between far-right extremists and moderates in Muslim nations. Whether Fatah taking up arms against Hamas in the Palestinian territories, the civil war against Islamists in Algeria, or the bloody election contest in Pakistan, the past few years have been full of examples. Examples generally ignored by pundits and rarely addressed by American leadership.

Obama took the simple step of agreeing to “speak as clearly and as plainly as I can” about these subjects. He stated directly that “America is not — and never will be — at war with Islam” — a clear statement many people needed to hear. On Afghanistan, he said, “We seek no military base there.” He labeled Iraq the “war of choice” it always was. And he took pains to discuss Al Qaeda and other extremists as a dangerous minority rather than elevate them beyond their influence.

“The Holy Koran teaches that whoever kills an innocent is as — it is as if he has killed all mankind,” the president said. “And the Holy Koran also says whoever saves a person, it is as if he has saved all mankind. The enduring faith of over a billion people is so much bigger than the narrow hatred of a few. Islam is not part of the problem in combating violent extremism — it is an important part of promoting peace.”

Intentionally or not, passages such as this echoed John Kennedy’s Berlin speech, perhaps the last presidential address abroad to draw such attention. “What is true of this city is true of Germany,” JFK said that day. “Real, lasting peace in Europe can never be assured as long as one German out of four is denied the elementary right of free men, and that is to make a free choice.”

Looking back at it today, that speech showed how quickly history can move. Less than 50 years later, the Soviet Union is no more, the “Cold War” is long over, and Germany is not only reunited but a key leader of a fiscally potent European Union that would have seemed as likely as a flying unicorn in Kennedy’s day. Similarly, for all the damage recent years have done to America’s reputation in and relationship to Middle Eastern countries, the situation can be radically different in the years ahead.

There’s obviously a lot to do before that happens, from a real Iraq withdrawal to grassroots democratic reforms in places such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. But the Obama speech at least signaled a start. Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda effectively turned the debate into a clash of civilizations, which the Bush Administration and American military were often too willing to join. Obama is wisely focused on the ways the great civilizations of the West and Middle East can work toward common goals.

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