Obama's Cairo speech: Surprisingly good

I didn’t get the chance to watch Barack Obama’s Cairo speech live, although I’m sure that it will be chopped up on YouTube within the next couple of hours.  Instead, I read the full text posted by Andrew Malcolm, as well as Andrew’s commentary, and in most ways, it wouldn’t differ from a similar speech given by any recent American President.  In fact, the Cairo audience may have been a little surprised about the depth of the defense of Israel’s right to exist in peace, as well as the strong denunciation of 9/11 Trutherism that has been wildly popular among Arabs, even though Osama bin Laden claimed credit long ago for the attack.

Not surprisingly, Obama emphasized the rights of Palestinians to live in their own state, which the Washington Post’s Howard Schneider reported via Twitter prompted a lot of head-nodding.  Obama added this scolding to Arab nations, though, that may have come as a surprise:

Finally, the Arab States must recognize that the Arab Peace Initiative was an important beginning, but not the end of their responsibilities. The Arab-Israeli conflict should no longer be used to distract the people of Arab nations from other problems. Instead, it must be a cause for action to help the Palestinian people develop the institutions that will sustain their state; to recognize Israel’s legitimacy; and to choose progress over a self-defeating focus on the past.

That was a not-so-subtle jab at the practice of various Arab and Muslim states to use the Palestinian issue to whip up anti-Israel sentiment for their own domestic purposes.  Egypt has diplomatic relations with Israel, but is not above doing some of that itself, which makes this jab a little more sharp, given the setting.  It seems a little surprising — and refreshing — that Obama would challenge this practice in a speech in Cairo.

Israel, Obama said, has to accept a two-state solution with real sovereignty.  Well, they have, on numerous occasions.  They’ve also withdrawn from Gaza; Obama appeared to blame Israel for the misery of the Gazans, rather than Hamas, who keeps launching wars against Israel.  Obama could have shown a little more backbone in pointing that out, and it seems like pandering to have avoided it.  However, he did instruct the audience about Israel’s right to exist:

America’s strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable. It is based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.

Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust. Tomorrow, I will visit Buchenwald, which was part of a network of camps where Jews were enslaved, tortured, shot and gassed to death by the Third Reich. Six million Jews were killed – more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, ignorant, and hateful. Threatening Israel with destruction – or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews – is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.

Speaking of baseless, ignorant, and hateful, Obama tried to set the record straight on 9/11, and set a baseline for American security:

The situation in Afghanistan demonstrates America’s goals, and our need to work together. Over seven years ago, the United States pursued al Qaeda and the Taliban with broad international support. We did not go by choice, we went because of necessity. I am aware that some question or justify the events of 9/11. But let us be clear: al Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 people on that day. The victims were innocent men, women and children from America and many other nations who had done nothing to harm anybody. And yet Al Qaeda chose to ruthlessly murder these people, claimed credit for the attack, and even now states their determination to kill on a massive scale. They have affiliates in many countries and are trying to expand their reach. These are not opinions to be debated; these are facts to be dealt with.

Make no mistake: we do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan. We seek no military bases there. It is agonizing for America to lose our young men and women. It is costly and politically difficult to continue this conflict. We would gladly bring every single one of our troops home if we could be confident that there were not violent extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan determined to kill as many Americans as they possibly can. But that is not yet the case.

Most of the rest of the speech was standard boilerplate, heavy on the compatibility of Islam and America and historical examples going back to our founding.  Obama didn’t mention the Barbary Pirates, but he did note that the US has over 1200 mosques and claimed that almost 8 million Muslims live in the US.  That number is the subject of dispute; CAIR claims 8 million, but the CIA and other surveys put it at less than 2 million.  For the purposes of this audience, Obama used the highest number, apparently to make the biggest impression.

Did it work? Schneider says it only received light applause at the end, so perhaps Obama told a few too many hard truths for Egyptian tastes — which is why we questioned that decision.  On the whole, though, Obama defended American positions on Israel and Afghanistan with more strength than he does here at home.

Of course, the big question will be whether this does anything at all for our standing in the Muslim world.  Frankly, I doubt it; this may wind up eroding Obama’s standing instead.  Still, a much better effort than I’d feared.

Update: Yid with Lid strongly disagrees with me on Obama’s defense of Israel, so be sure to read all of his post.

Update II: I note on Twitter that plenty of people are upset with Obama’s quoting of the Koran and his positive spin on Islam, ie, “religion of peace,” “Golden Rule,” etc.  He is in Cairo, after all, and to quote an old aphorism, you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.  Appealing to people’s better natures is a rhetorical device with a long history — and a long history of mixed results.  However, I don’t hear anything in this speech that Bush didn’t say himself.

Update III: I would also say that I didn’t see much apologizing for America in this speech, but that there was some; Obama mentions Gitmo and the 1950s coup d’etat in Iran.  Also, Michelle takes my point about the tenor of this speech sounding a lot like Bush’s, but she consistently objected to that in Bush’s speeches as well.

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