No Comment — June 4, 2009, 11:38 am

The Cairo Speech

I watched Barack Obama’s much heralded speech in Cairo this morning asking myself, How much of this speech could I imagine being delivered by George W. Bush? There are a few lines of rhetorical continuity with the past eight years, but I stress the word “few.” In general, I was surprised at how tough Obama was. He was critical of the routine descent into self-pity and hate-mongering that characterizes a dangerous part of the Arab world. He was critical of Israel and its expansionist policies in the West Bank. He was critical of Palestinians for their inability to govern themselves and the faith they share with Israelis of finding solutions to all problems in violence. He was harshly critical of the serial Middle Eastern misadventures of the Bush Administration, which he has inherited and from which he is—so far not terribly convincingly—attempting to extricate himself. Bush was capable of articulating the criticisms of the Arab world, but never of Israel or the United States. But Obama calls for an end to the cycle of vilification: “Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire.”

This speech was a problematic venture. Within the Muslim world, the selection of Cairo as the site raised touchy issues. A key criticism of American bona fides has rested on our nation’s predilection for dictators intent on dynastic rule, especially when they drape their plans with democratic trappings. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak seems a prime example. On the other hand, Egypt’s 76 million people and its central role in Arab culture and history make it a logical platform.

Obama’s speech today was another rhetorical masterpiece, very carefully tailored simultaneously to meet the expectations of Americans and of the Islamic world. It will produce a predictable volume of noise from the right-wing fringe in the United States, among those so unhinged that they express outrage when the president utters the word “shukran” (thank you), and it has already unnerved the masters of Al Qaeda and other Islamicist hate groups who see their message effectively undermined by Obama. But Obama’s message has found a resonance with the world and that promises a fresh start, an opportunity to sweep away mistakes of the past and reframe America’s relations with the Islamic world. Obama’s ultimate challenge lies elsewhere: can the promise of his rhetoric be transformed into policies which sustain this momentum, and can these policies achieve their objectives on soil that has been the graveyard for so many earlier efforts? It’s far more difficult to see how Obama will meet that challenge. But Obama is already providing his mettle as a political magician, and for now that’s cause enough for hope.

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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

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 Some names and identifying details have been changed. 

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In the exam room, she perched on the table with her feet crossed at the ankles, her blond hair brushing the back of her pink hospital gown. “I don’t know what’s available for me here,” she told her doctor, Katherine Degen, who sat facing her on a stool. “I figured nothing.”

 Some names and identifying details have been changed. 

“Big, fat zero, unfortunately,” Degen said, making a 0 with her fingers. The last doctor who provided abortions in Rapid City retired in 1986, three years before Ashley was born.

The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

It would be too difficult to attend school as a single mother of two, Ashley knew. She had made an appointment for three weeks from now at the nearest abortion clinic, in Billings, Montana, 318 miles away. But just a week and a half ago, her husband had said he wanted to get back together and offered to raise the child as his own. Was it a sign that she was meant to continue the pregnancy? As a rule, Ashley approached her problems with resolve. She was capable and tough; she liked shooting guns and lifting weights. She kept track of her stats and checked off her goals as she achieved them one by one. Yet the dilemma before her had shaken her confidence. She leaned back and turned to watch the ultrasound screen. The black-and-white image danced. A sharp, fast thumping emerged from the machine. As Degen removed the wand, Ashley wiped the corner of her eye.

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