On Obama's Cairo Speech


After a watching the video on C-Span, I'll give Obama mixed marks for a serviceable, if discursive and uninspired, speech in Cairo. While hitting the right notes on a number of important issues—religious freedom, women's rights, the futility of trying to establish an independent Palestinian state while engaging in terrorist violence, the historical ignorance required to deny the Holocaust (a point met with a stony, uncomfortable silence)—it was, as could be expected, heavy on platitudes and light on specifics. This is, after all, a tour of reconciliation and, as such, it would be impolite to point out that, while throughout history "Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality" and has provided its adherents "elegant calligraphy and places of peaceful contemplation," another, more sinister strain of fundamentalist Islam threatens in Lebanon, Gaza, and Pakistan.

Also, while the bits stressing the importance of religious freedom are deserving of praise, it's mildly irritating that, in 6000 words, the president's speech writers found no space to defend the freedom criticize Islam (Recall that Egyptian government officials visited Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, hoping he would punish the paper who published the "Mohammad cartoons"). Sure, it is important to protect the practice of religion, but it's also vital to protect us unbelievers who desire to insult religion, no matter how gratuitous.

Some reactions to the speech from around the blogosphere. At the Huffington Post, Peter Daou, former advisor to Hillary Clinton, says that Obama betrays "a naiveté, perhaps feigned, about how the Arab world works."

Is there an overarching purpose to Obama's speech? Is it to repair our image after eight years of a radical rightwing administration? Of course. But if the goal is to repair our image, then how about shunning the barbaric concept of indefinite detention? How about heeding the increasingly distressed calls of those who view the new administration's actions in the realm of civil liberties as a dangerous, disturbing, and precedent-setting affirmation of Bush's worst excesses? With women being stoned, raped, abused, battered, mutilated, and slaughtered on a daily basis across the globe, violence that is so often perpetrated in the name of religion, the most our president can speak about is protecting their right to wear the hijab? I would have been much more heartened if the preponderance of the speech had been about how in the 21st century, we CANNOT tolerate the pervasive abuse of our mothers and sisters and daughters.

Alex Massie, at The Spectator:

Still, as the President said, a speech is just a speech. But that doesn't mean it is only a speech. Obama's ambition was to speak to muslims all around the world, not just to dictators and princes and emirs. The existence of the speech was probably more important than anything Obama actually said—most of which will be just as perishable as most speeches. But the image of th american president in Cairo may endure rather longer. Who knows how much it can achieve? But, as Blair might say too, the only thing worse than failing is not trying in the first place.

At Foreign Policy, Mark Lynch is all praise:

President Obama's speech today in Cairo met the bar he set for himself.  In an address modeled after the Philadelphia speech on race, he forewent soaring oratory in favor of a thoughtful, nuanced and challenging reflection on America's relations with the Muslims around the world (not "the Muslim world", which for some reason became a major issue in American punditry over the last few days).  As he frankly recognized, no one speech can overcome the many problems he addressed.  But this speech is an essential starting point in a genuine conversation, a respectful dialogue on core issues. After the initial rush of instant commentaries and attempts to inflame controversy pass, it should become the foundation for a serious, ongoing conversation which could, as the President put it, "remake this world."

The Weekly Standard's Steve Hayes is skeptical:

Perhaps the most curious passage was this one: "Given our interdependence, any world order which elevates any nation or group of people above any other will inevitably fail." This is nonsense, of course, as Obama seems to recognize several sentences later when he says that America will "relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security."

Does Obama mean to suggest that the United States should not be "elevated" over, say, North Korea? Or state sponsors of terror like Syria and Iran? Indeed, the opposite of Obama's formulation is closer to the truth: Any world order that does not elevate some nations or groups of people over others will inevitably fail. And should.