Obama's Speech

The president’s Cairo address confirmed his skill as an orator and encouraged Arabs and Israelis to work toward peace. But the realities of the AfPak conflict will probably ring truer in Muslim ears than Obama’s dulcet tones.

President Obama gave a necessary speech in Cairo this morning. And it was deftly delivered.

From an undisclosed location, Osama bin Laden also gave a necessary speech-necessary not only for the cause of his jihad, but also for his own survival. Bin Laden proved some PR deftness of his own, delivering his speech on the eve of-rather than in reaction to-Obama's much-anticipated Cairo address. His words demonstrate al-Qaeda's own calculus regarding the main weakness of the American message and the mobilizing cause for jihad.

Obama did not fail to impress-demonstrating not only his skills as orator (perhaps redundantly so) but also a reflective, penetrating intellect. He covered many millennia of history and broached some difficult topics. The president found the right balance between supporting democracy and human rights, while avowing to reduce intervention in the domestic affairs of other countries. He also acknowledged America's duty in recognizing the electoral will of foreign nations, even when inconvenient for the United States, but maintained that winning an election is not the only criteria for democratic governance-giving an oblique nod to Hamas' electoral gains. He wisely avoided congratulatory rhetoric of the repressive governments in the region, while keeping the focus on the people and historic institutions of the region.

Importantly, he carefully put the onus for the peace process on Israel and the countries in the region. Obama restated his support for a two-state solution, called for an end to Israeli settlements, and sketched out his vision of Jerusalem as "a place for all of the children of Abraham to mingle peacefully together as in the story of Isra, when Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed (peace be upon them) joined in prayer." He warned, however, that America could not single-handedly deliver peace. Through this and other recent measures, the president is showing some independence from the current Israeli government-an issue that is being noted and weighed throughout Israel.

Obama also laid a cultural bridge between Islam and the West, stressing common values and historic tolerance, and reestablishing the tattered respect between the two civilizations. He humbly acknowledged America's own cultural shortcomings, including residual prejudice against women and the West's export of violent and salacious entertainment.

Bin Laden, meanwhile, sought to maintain his grip on his jihadi franchise. By bin Laden's own determinations, the clarion call to jihad is currently the war in Pakistan and Afghanistan, rather than the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian crisis-marking a departure from al-Qaeda's previous statement (delivered by Ayman al-Zawahiri) that stressed the latter. Indeed, bin Laden seems to have anticipated Obama's distancing from Netanyahu's administration.

Al-Qaeda's determination seems logical. It also reflects the most important question regarding Obama's rousing oratory-that is, whether it will durably resonate throughout the Muslim world. The speech may well have bolstered America's image in much of the Arab world-a worthwhile feat, given its battered credibility. But in South Asia, the main theatre of U.S. engagement, Obama's words are competing with drone attacks, an enormously burdensome operation in Pakistan's Swat valley, and other severe hardships for civilian populations. Those realities are likely to drown out Obama's conciliatory words. In that regard, bin Laden's calculations are probably accurate.

 

Ximena Ortiz is a senior editor at The National Interest.