U.S. President Barack Obama’s historic speech in Cairo Thursday elicited broad approval from around the U.S., with the notable exception of the neoconservative right.
Obama’s speech itself was largely uncontroversial. Broad in scope and thin on policy specifics, Obama frankly acknowledged a troubled history that has manifested itself in today’s anti-Western Muslim extremism.
But rather than focus on divergences, Obama proposed a "new beginning" between the U.S. and Muslim world by engagement based on "mutual interest and mutual respect," garnishing his speech with an Arab phrases and references to peaceful coexistence in religious texts including the Koran.
The reactions of much of the U.S. pundit class were overwhelmingly positive — acknowledging that Obama tackled prickly subjects in the relationship between Muslims around the world and U.S. foreign policy goals.
"Obama acknowledged room for disagreement and contestation and showed that he understands and respects alternative views even when he does not share them," wrote the scholar Stephen Walt on his ‘Foreign Policy’ blog. "Yet there are also clear limits to his tolerance: the speech included a forthright rejection of violence… and a clear statement of the American commitment to basic human rights."
"[H]e has committed himself to a set of principles and policies in front of the entire world," concluded Walt. "Now he needs to follow up words with deeds. And so do his listeners."
Obama broke down his speech into sections, addressing "violent extremism"; the Israeli-Arab conflict; nuclear weapons; democracy; religious freedom; women’s rights; and "development and opportunity."
Former Israeli negotiator and New America Foundation fellow Daniel Levy noted that, in addition to the breadth of subjects addressed, "this speech should perhaps be remembered as much for what was not said."
Obama didn’t praise the autocratic Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (long a darling of the U.S. for his allegiance), nor discuss the "purple finger version of democratization," nor make mention of "the traditional American condescension toward the Palestinian narrative," wrote Levy on his blog, ‘Prospects for Peace’.
"But perhaps most remarkably of all, the words ‘terror’ or ‘terrorism’ did not pass the president’s lips," he wrote. "Here was a leader and a team around him smart enough to acknowledge that certain words have become too tainted, too laden with baggage, their use has become counter-productive, today the Global War on Terror framing was truly laid to rest."
Muslim- and Arab-American groups praised Obama’s speech for its nuance and scope.
"It was a full agenda, making clear how deep a hole we’re in," Arab-American Institute president James Zogby told the USA Today newspaper.
"This was a speech that was light years away from the hateful rhetoric of the [former President George W.] Bush years," wrote a Palestinian-American Michigan State professor, Rossina Hassoun, in an account published on a blog.
"I actually heard an American president admit that the U.S. had overthrown a legally elected government in Iran. I actually heard an American president acknowledging the suffering and dislocation of the Palestinian people. I heard an American president deny the inevitability of the clash of civilizations," she wrote.
The sharpest divergences in U.S. reaction came on issues regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
It was one area of the speech where Obama offered a few specifics, reiterating his call to end settlements by noting that the U.S. "does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements" and calling for Palestinians to focus on their own development.
Obama referred to "Palestine," an uncommon reference to a state that remains only an aspiration.
The pro-Israeli far right-wing of U.S. commentators roundly blasted the speech in disparate ways such as ridiculing it for naiveté and simply denouncing it as "awful," as former New York Sun journalist Ira Stoll labeled his post on the blog of the neoconservative magazine Commentary.
"What an awful speech," Stoll blurted at the beginning of his post, going on to lament the positioning of millions of stateless "Palestinian Arabs as the victims."
The Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) complained, rather incredibly, that "Obama struck a balanced tone with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that’s what was wrong with this speech."
"American policy should not be balanced," continued the RJC release, deriding Palestinians as "those who either engage in [terror] or are too weak to prevent it."
Other mainstream Jewish groups took more balanced lines, often praising parts of the speech and complaining about others.
The chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, Alan Solow, who supported Obama, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) that the speech was "one that was quite positive," though he hoped for tougher rhetoric on Iran.
MJ Rosenberg, the head of policy analysis at the pro-peace Israel Policy Forum (IPF), wrote on the Talking Points Memo Café site that Obama’s speech was a landmark in the relationship between Islam and West.
"Not only did the speech specifically reject western (and American) colonialism, its entire tone was the antithesis of colonial," wrote Rosenberg. "This is a profoundly different American voice, one that will do much to advance American goals rather than to sabotage them."
IPF, in a statement, "strongly applaud[ed] President Obama’s historic, bold and wide-ranging speech," and was "heartened" by Obama’s robust efforts towards the two-state solution.
On the website of the National Review Online, neoconservative American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Rubin asserted that "Obama studiously avoids the word democracy."
But Obama introduced a discussion of democracy as one of the six topics he directly addressed at length. In fact, as he launched into the discussion, Obama used the very word that Rubin accused him of dodging: "The fourth issue that I will address is democracy."
Obama then used the word itself three more times, and, for good measure, once described the word by its definition: "A government of the people and by the people."
He also went on, in addition to using the word, to give a nuanced view of democracy. He dispelled what was a common criticism of the Bush administration that it conflated institutions of democracy with elections.
"[E]lections alone do not make true democracy," he said, noting the importance of maintaining a democratic mandate, minority rights, "confidence in the rule of law," transparency, justice, and basic freedoms.
(Inter Press Service)\
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