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.