Sunday, June 14, 2009

Obama in Cairo - Reactions

President Obama's speech at Cairo University June 4 was important.

A great amount of analysis already has transpired.

Analysis also will appear in this space following the forthcoming major foreign policy address tomorrow from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. He will speak at Bar-Ilan University.

Observant readers will see immediately the challenges faced by politicians, and by anyone with responsible concern for the region. Obama is a politician. As such, his speeches are political craft by definition, yet his speech is dubbed a speech to the "Muslim world." Have we ever in our lives seen a politician address him or herself to "the Catholic world," or to the "Buddhist world"?

One sentence in the Obama speech reads:
Experience guides my conviction that partnership between America and Islam must be based on what Islam is, not what it isn't.
Partnership between Islam and America? What are we talking about here? How about a partnership between Hinduism and Russia? Or a partnership between Zoroastrians and the Marshall Islands?

What was the big flash point in the Cairo speech? The issue of settlements. Do settlements have anything to do with Islam?


The issue of settlements is a political matter, NOT a religious one. But wait! For Jews (at least for many Jews) it IS a religious matter.

This tiny observation points to the very tip of the complexity and difficulty of the region, and of how to understand and distinguish between words and actions of politicians, and the nature of religions and religious communities.

Tomorrow we will hear another political speech, again, likely to render politics and policy issues into language evoking religious passions, and laced with religious justification and sanction.

These are interesting times. These are two strong and impressive politicians, and we must (as always) pay very close attention. We are enjoined to pray for our leaders.

In the mean time, I have sought for Leaves readers two sample reactions to President Obama's Cairo speech, one from among Muslim thinkers, another from an Israeli perspective.

I sought commentary that is clear and unequivocal, while simultaneously moderate in tone and disposition.

The Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) sits on a very progressive horizon of Muslim thinking. Follows are the thoughts of several thinkers convened to analyze and comment upon President Obama's Cairo speech.

After that is a clear flow of Israeli response to the speech. The Wall Street Journal is always reliable to write quietly but forcefully with a conservative lean in its editorial content.

Here are the speakers from the CSID and the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) panel:
The Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) and the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) co-hosted a panel discussion on Thursday, June 4, 2009 entitled "Analyzing Obama's Speech to the Muslim World." The panelists were Geneive Abdo of The Century Foundation, Richard Eisendorf of Freedom House and Will Marshall, of the Progressive Policy Institute. Radwan Masmoudi, President of CSID, moderated the panel.

Masmoudi expressed his apprehension that President Obama would not prominently feature democracy and human rights in his speech. He was pleasantly surprised, however, that democracy was among the speech's main themes. He noted that after twenty years of deterioration of US-Muslim relations due to mistrust, misunderstandings and a lack of information and knowledge on both sides, President Obama's speech set a new course. And while Obama's speech opened hearts and minds in the Muslim world, Masmoudi warned that people in the region would expect concrete, policy-based follow up to his words.

Marshall labeled the speech as "masterful;" noting Obama' unique ability to delicately address complicated issues while simultaneously providing clear solutions in his speeches. As a corollary, he contrasted Bush's use of the imperative voice in communicating with the Muslim world with Obama's deft tone imbued with honesty and respect. He argued that this approach had a disarming effect to those who are inherently distrustful of the United States and burdens its detractors to justify their clichéd beliefs.

Will Marshall at CSIDWhile his overall assessment was positive, Marshall insisted on including three caveats to his praise. First, he worried that Obama's message of reconciliation conceded too much to the al-Qaeda narrative of victimization. Marshall argued that it was not Obama's role to reinforce Muslim feelings of identity politics; rather, it was his duty to debunk them. Second, he noted that the historical animosity between the US and the Muslim world would not change in one speech. He argued that Obama spoke to a tough-minded audience and that radicalism and extremism would not bend to rhetorical sweet-talking. In this vein insisted that values should guide US policy and that America should reap the consequences of such an endeavor. Third, he argued that for Obama's efforts to be seen as a departure from Bush-era policies ignores the real problem of fifty years of America's short-minded policies of allying with expedient allies against Communism and radical Islamism. This track record only reinforced his belief that the United States must align with ordinary people's aspirations against their governments and not step back from promoting democracy.

Geneive Abdo characterized Obama's approach as "evasive" and devoid of any real policy prescriptions. And while he addressed buzzwords such as colonialism and occupation, she argued Obama's approach was not nearly expansive enough. She continued by noting how Obama's rhetorical brilliance raised expectation so high that Iran and al-Qaeda had preemptively issued statements responding to his speech. She continued by critiquing Obama's use of extremism as a foil in his speech. She argued that the debate was already well beyond this dichotomy and that Obama should have used his speech to address the political, economic and social reasons for extremism's regional constituency.

She also noted the originality of using the affluence and freedom of America's Muslim community as an argument in the US's favor. She did not think this argument would be particularly persuasive given the divergence of circumstances among Muslims in the United States and the Middle East. On the War in Iraq, Abdo criticized the president for not apologizing for the invasion and not offering concrete plans for the country. She did admit, however, that he at least repudiated the Bush notion that Iraq was a war of necessity and not one of choice. Abdo also believed that Obama criticized the Palestinians far more than the Israelis in his speech, but did note how the president's tough rhetoric revealed a burgeoning rift between the US and Israel. In summation, she graded the presentation of his remarks highly but felt the substance of the speech was mediocre and that the conflict between the two sides was rooted in policy and not a lack of respect.

Richard Eisendorf noted the choice of Cairo as the venue for the speech as the center of the Arab world and that the diversity of the crowd represented the full breadth of Egyptian public opinion. He then pointed to the loud applause during sections on democracy and human rights as evidence the crowd was not full of Mubarak loyalists. Acknowledging the concerns of his fellow panelists, he asserted that while policy follow up to the speech will be the most important element of his outreach to the Muslim world, the speech did leave a very strong feeling of respect in the way the United States under Obama intends to reach out to the Muslim world. He also pointed to the three D's the administration has heretofore considered the cornerstones of its foreign policy: diplomacy, development and defense. He argued that in the president's speech he appeared to add the fourth 'D' of democracy to the fold.

Eisendorf also highlighted the shift Obama intended to make from Bush policies and how that would affect public opinion in the region. He specifically mentioned the straightforward manner in which Obama addressed the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. He also noted the significance of the president's use of the word 'Palestine' and other key buzzwords. In addition, he believed many in the region would find his rhetoric on this issue insufficient. As a final point, Eisendorf felt Obama finally established his doctrine of 'quiet diplomacy based on mutual respect.'

In his summary statement, Masmoudi noted that while the tone of the speech was largely positive, it only represented the beginning of the administration's engagement with the Muslim world and that implementing the ideas of the speech would be a tremendous challenge. Meeting this challenge, he said, would require the concerted effort both by the domestic American reform constituency as well as positive steps by the Muslim world.

Here is the commentary out of the Wall Street Journal:

Why Israelis Are Cool on the Obama Speech
What's needed is an affirmation of Israel's historical right to exist.


A friend asked me to explain why people in Israel, including seasoned peace activists, felt less than buoyant about Barack Obama's speech in Cairo last week.

In theory, Mr. Obama's speech has affirmed everything Israelis have ever hoped for. Peaceful coexistence and mutual acceptance with its Arab neighbors has been the ultimate dream of the Zionist movement since the Balfour Declaration of 1917. So, why not embrace a major U.S. presidential speech that calls for concrete steps to advance that dream?

My friend reminded me of the outburst of joy that seized the Jewish world on Nov. 29, 1947, when the United Nations voted to partition the Biblical land into a Jewish and an Arab state of roughly equal size. There was hardly a dissenting voice then among Israelis. Half a century later, the peace offers that Ehud Barak made to Yasser Arafat in 2000 and that Ehud Olmert made to Abu Mazen in 2009 prove that the idea of a two-state utopia is still firmly lodged in the psyche of most Israelis. Why then weren't Israelis ecstatic over Mr. Obama's speech?

There are two main reasons.

The first stems from crossed signals that are blocking the resumption of peace talks. Palestinians view Israeli settlement construction as the litmus test for Israel's intentions vis-à-vis a future Palestinian state. Israelis view Palestinian textbooks, TV programs and mosque sermons to be the litmus test of Palestinian intentions. A society that teaches its youngsters to negate its neighbor's legitimacy, so the argument goes, cannot be serious about respecting a peace accord as permanent.

Mr. Obama's speech, keenly recognizing the importance of emitting trust-building signals to break the stalemate, had crisp and stern words to say about Israeli settlements but hardly a word about Palestinian denial and incitement. "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements," the president said. "It is time for these settlements to stop."

The hoped-for reciprocal sentence -- "It is time for Palestinian incitements to stop" -- was conspicuously absent. Commentaries on Israeli TV noted disappointedly that not a single demand was addressed to the Palestinian Authority.

This has left many Israelis wondering if the Obama administration is aware of the fierce, subterranean "battle of intentions" that has prevented the peace process from moving forward. In Israel, even the harshest opponent of the settlement movement would not support the emergence of a sovereign neighbor, rocket range away, that is unwilling to invest in education for a lasting peace.

A call for a simultaneous freeze on both Israeli settlements and Palestinian incitement, clad in timetables and monitoring methods, would have invited both sides to an equal honesty test. That test could help jump start the "new beginning" that Mr. Obama called for.

Secondly, Mr. Obama's rationale for Israel's legitimacy began with the Holocaust, not with the birthplace of Jewish history. "The aspiration for a Jewish homeland," he said, "is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied." Who else defines Israel's legitimacy that way? Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad does. Iran sees Israel as a foreign entity to the region, hastily created to sooth European guilt over the Holocaust. Israelis consider this distortion of history to be an assault on the core of their identity as a nation.

An affirmation of "Israel's historical right to exist," based on a 2,000-year continuous quest to rebuild a national homeland, is what the region needs to hear from Mr. Obama. The magic words "historical right" have the capacity to change the entire equation in the Middle East. They convey a genuine commitment to permanence, and can therefore invigorate the peace process with the openness and goodwill that it has been lacking thus far.

I hope that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a policy speech this Sunday, makes historic recognition an axiomatic part of any peace agreement, and that Mr. Obama backs him up. This would turn Mr. Obama's speech in Cairo into a huge leap forward in the quest for peace and understanding in the region.

Mr. Pearl, a professor of computer science at UCLA, is president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, founded in memory of his son to promote cross-cultural understanding.