Reflections on President Obama’s Egypt Speech

Stephen R. Grand
Stephen R. Grand Former Brookings Expert

June 4, 2009

This morning President Obama demonstrated once again — as he did in his Philadelphia speech on race — that speaking candidly about painful, divisive issues can build trust while at the same time edifying and uplifting us all. A single speech is not going to eliminate the anger, feelings of disrespect, and mutual suspicion that have built up over the years between the United States and Muslim communities around the globe, but this was truly a masterful one. It was pitched largely on a moral plane. He elaborated a set of principles to guide not only how the United States and Muslim-majority countries should move forward together, but even the conduct of all nations in an increasingly interdependent world — an unexpected glimpse into his still emerging world view.

More critically, the president spoke frankly and openly about issues in our mutual relations that are too often swept under the rug: the Holocaust, the plight of the Palestinians, the use of violence for political ends, the American role in unseating Iran’s democratically elected government in 1953, the education of women, the importance of governments that reflect the will of their people, the right to dress according to religious precepts, etc. He also talked bluntly about America’s responsibilities, and that of other parties, toward resolving the Palestinian-Israeli issue, the nuclear standoff with Iran, and the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

With his candor, President Obama created the real possibility for what he described as “a new beginning” with the “Muslim world.” It will be up to his Administration in the months and years ahead to flesh out that vision with tangible policies and programs that address the major conflicts and the profound crises of governance confronting many Muslim-majority states. Progress toward finding a final settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will be key. Only time will tell if the United States can pursue policies in this part of the world that live up to it values while at the same time advancing its interests. Regrettably, despite the intense optimism of Obama’s speech, America’s track record in this regard is decidely mixed.