Questions abound about Obama’s speech in Cairo
Barack Obama’s election had the potential to be the nation’s most consequential act of public diplomacy since the Marshall Plan.
The story of his rise highlighted the openness of American society; his personal connection to Islam set him up as a powerful spokesman to a part of the world that bedevils and threatens us; and as a decisive break from the hated George W. Bush, he represented a fresh start when the world yearned for one.
Obama realized some of this promise in his flawed, but still worthy, Cairo address. Consider these extraordinary facts: In a rapturously received speech in the heart of the Arab world, Obama extolled America as “one of the greatest sources of progress that the world has ever known”; pledged we will “relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our country”; condemned Holocaust denial as “baseless, ignorant and hateful”; said “it is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus”; insisted that “the Arab-Israeli conflict should no longer be used to distract the people of Arab nations from other problems”; and called for more democracy, religious freedom and women’s rights.
Now, these aren’t startlingly bold statements. For most Americans, they are commonplaces, and Bush must have said them dozens of times. But for the Muslim world, they constitute hard truths. When they are coming from Obama, there’s a chance that the key target audience — Muslim fence-sitters open to persuasion — will consider them more seriously than before.
Of course, Obama did his share of pandering, as if he were at the Cairo version of a Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner. He left the impression that it was a departure for an American president to declare Islam a religion of peace, even though Bush did it repeatedly. He ignored America’s military actions during the past two decades, from Somalia to the Balkan Wars, to alleviate Muslim suffering. He shaded history to suit his purposes, ripping John Adams out of context to make the 18th-century president’s grappling with the Barbary pirates sound like an inspiring act of multicultural understanding.
Obama loves positioning himself between two extremes, rejecting both for a shining synthesis. Shockingly, he at times defined the extremes as his own country and its enemies. On the one hand, America played a role in the overthrow of an Iranian government in the 1950s; on the other, the Iranian government has killed Americans for decades. So we’re all to blame — can’t we just get along?
Some passages were so open to interpretation, they constituted rhetorical Rorschach tests. When Obama exhorted Palestinians to heed the example of peaceful protesters around the world, was it a lyrical yet pointed condemnation of decades-long Palestinian terrorism? Or was the comparison of their plight to that of blacks in segregationist America and in apartheid-era South Africa a profoundly delegitimizing slap at Israel?
Obama was at his worst on Iran. The Arabs fear both the Iranian weapons program and American weakness in confronting it. Standing in an Arab capital, Obama still couldn’t bring himself to declare forthrightly that Iran must abandon its program. Instead, he reiterated his call for a world without nuclear weapons that puts U.S. — and Israeli — nukes on the same moral plane as Iran’s prospective weapon.
If Bush put too much faith in an overarching vision of freedom, Obama puts too much in the power of interconnectedness, “our common humanity.” The traditional Arab expression of interconnectedness isn’t so warm and fuzzy, but has shown enduring appeal: “Me against my brother; me and my brother against my cousin; me, my brother and my cousin against the world.”
All that said, the fundamental question about Obama’s address is whether it worked as public diplomacy. On balance, will it make the intellectual and political isolation of Islamic extremists more or less likely? Because the speech makes it more likely, it must be judged a success.

Rich Lowry is a syndicated columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at:

Comments are no longer available on this story