June 4, 2009

President Obama's Cairo University speech to the Muslim world was much like a State of the Union address, in that was a laundry list of items that tried to have a little something for everyone.   Also, as with his Strasborg town hall speech and his call for hitting the reset button with Russia, Obama said America must accept blame but that others must change, too.

While it will take some time to see if Obama's words had the desired impact with the followers of Muhammad, the blogosphere is already weighing in with vigor.  The Glittering Eye's Dave Schuler, a Scoop Jackson Democrat, describes the speech as "classic Obama in the sense that it is an aspirational, lofty speech that draws on his family history and early experiences."

George Washington University Middle East scholar Marc Lynch reckoned that the speech "met the bar [Obama] set for himself" and that it marked "an essential starting point in a genuine conversation, a respectful dialogue on core issues."  He was particularly pleased that "Obama made an admirable effort to speak a few words in Arabic, even if he mangled the pronunciations (hajib instead of hijab, al-Azhar). As anyone who has traveled abroad knows, a little effort learning local languages signals respect and goes a long way. "

Indeed, even conservative critics like Hot Air's Ed Morrissey found something to like.  While noting that, "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,"  he believes "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."

Writing from the center-left, The American Prospect's Adam Server noted the same thing and dubbed the following passage his "favorite part of the speech."

Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America's founding. This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It's a story with a simple truth: that violence is a dead end. It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered.

To be sure, not all conservatives were so pleased.   Talk show host and Townhall blogger Hugh Hewitt laments the syrupy media coverage and rejects the entire premise of the speech, observing that the Muslim world is far too diverse to be lumped together.  More substantively,

There are two great objections to the speech.  First is its false idea that the ideas within it represent a huge break with the Bush Administration's policies with regard to Islam.  Of course they don't.  George Bush said essentially the same things about the war's non-religous character on many  major occasions.  Bush's allies in the war are Obama's allies, and Bush's enemies are Obama's enemies, because those allies and enemies are opposed to or support the United States, not a particular president.  President Obama's extraordinary vanity as to the power of his own story should continue to trouble realists across the political spectrum.  None of the ruthless men who guide our greatest enemies care a whit about where the president was born or who is parents were.  They don't care either about his Muslim ancestors.  They hate America.  They hated America before George Bush became president and they will hate it after Barack Obama leaves office.

The second biggest objection is to the paragraphs devoted to Israel, which began with incomplete history and theory, and then veered off into the worst sort of moral equivalence.

Of course, that's an occupational hazard of laundry list speeches.  One can't touch on every key issue while treating each with the nuance they deserve.

Perhaps the harshest criticism of the speech comes from Peter Daou, who served as a political consultant to then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who observes that, "1. Aside from a few platitudes, it is disappointingly weak on human rights and specifically women's rights. 2. It betrays a naiveté, perhaps feigned, about how the Arab world works."   Like Hewitt, Daou believes Obama was far too tepid in his criticism of some of the region's more brutal regimes.   He's particularly perterbed by the president's pointing to the importance of protecting the hijab, the traditional Muslim head covering for women (something that disturbed Foreign Policy managing editor Blake Hounshell as well).

With women being stoned, raped, abused, battered, mutilated, and slaughtered on a daily basis across the globe, violence that is so often perpetrated in the name of religion, the most our president can speak about is protecting their right to wear the hijab? I would have been much more heartened if the preponderance of the speech had been about how in the 21st century, we CANNOT tolerate the pervasive abuse of our mothers and sisters and daughters.

Lynch gushes "the rollout of the speech already stands as one of the most successful public diplomacy and strategic communications campaigns I can ever remember," emphasizing that,

This wasn't a one-off Presidential speech.  The succession of statements (al-Arabiya interview, Turkish Parliament, message to the Iranians) and the engagement on the Israeli-Palestinian policy front set the stage.  Then the White House unleashed the full spectrum of new media engagement for this speech -- SMS and Twitter updates, online video, and online chatroom environment, and more.  This will likely be followed up upon to put substance on the notion of this as a "conversation" rather than an "address" -- which along with concrete policy progress will be the key to its long-term impact, if any.

One would hope.  Ultimately, as with our European allies and Russia, nice speeches can be helpful but they are no substitute for policy.   Daou's conclusion is absolutely right:

If we are to fix America's image in the world and if we are to heal the planet's myriad ills, it will not be done through contrite kumbaya speeches about how we are all one world and how we should all coexist peacefully, no matter whether the remarks are delivered in Cleveland or Cairo. It will be done by leading through example, by righting the many wrongs here at home, by seeking justice and fairness for all, by doing what is right, not saying what sounds pleasing to the media elite and the pliable punditocracy.

Of course, that's much harder than reading some kind words from a teleprompter.

Postscript:   Naval War College professor Nick Gvosdev puts it better:

My thought after hearing the president's remarks is this: how much will this speech translate into concrete policy directives that guide the actions of government? Is the text of the speech going to be figuratively posted on every wall of every department and agency--and override pre-existing directives and procedures? Will mid-level career government employees be in a position to alter "standard operating procedures" and claim the president's speech as providing the "advance authorization"--or will the reaction be, until there is a formal change and we are notified, this is just presidential rhetoric?

Finally, John Burgess, a retired Foreign Service Officer who spent years in the Muslim world, puts it this way:

What it all comes down to, of course, is what happens as a result of the speech. Words are good. Actions, however, will be what is necessary to create change and progress. Those actions are not totally within the power of any American president: they rest within the power of the people and governments of the region. Obama has opened a door. Will anyone be willing to step through it?

We shall see. I would not, however, recommend holding your breath waiting for it to happen.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

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