The Speech That Could Make the World a Safer Place

June 5, 2009

In August 2007, Barack Obama promised that if he were elected president he would ‘travel to a major Islamic forum and deliver an address to redefine our struggle.’

His impressive speech in Cairo yesterday fulfilled that promise.

Obama is the finest orator in a generation. His national political career was kicked off by a single speech: his keynote address to the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004.

His remarkable candidacy for president was propelled by his oratory – and sustained by it. At the lowest point in his campaign, when he was confronted by the toxic issue of race, Obama did not buy ad time or schedule a TV interview: he rented a hall in Philadelphia and wrote some remarks.

All of Obama’s skill as a speechwriter and speechmaker was on display for those guests seated in Cairo University’s Great Hall – and for the rest of us monitoring the speech on the Internet, SMS and Twitter. The structure of the talk was clear and straightforward. The language was simple and elegant rather than highfalutin, which befitted a speech addressed to multiple and diverse audiences.

Given that his remarks were directed mainly to Muslims, Obama was appropriately respectful of their religion. He quoted the Koran knowledgeably and dropped in Arabic greetings and sayings.

He spoke fondly of his personal links to Islam – in particular his childhood in Indonesia, which is home to the world’s largest Muslim population – and enumerated the gifts of learning and music that Islam has given to civilization.

The theme of the speech – that the communities of the Middle East need to understand their opponents’ viewpoints – was hardly novel. But it was reinforced by the balance with which Obama addressed the issues.

He acknowledged, for instance, that Americans sometimes hold negative stereotypes of Muslims, but warned that Muslims also have to update their views of America. He recognised Washington’s involvement in the 1953 coup in Iran but also reminded his listeners of Tehran’s acts of violence and hostage-taking against US citizens.

Obama’s section on the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians was very finely calibrated.

Israelis will welcome his clarity on the ‘unbreakable’ bond between the US and Israel, which he characterised as the ‘Jewish homeland’; his condemnation of ‘vile’ anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial; and his warning that Palestinians must abandon violence and recognise Israel.

Palestinians will welcome his recognition that their situation is ‘intolerable’ and the strength of his statement that Washington ‘does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements’.

This speech puts Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a real bind, caught between members of his own government who support continued settlement growth and an Israeli public which puts enormous weight on rock-solid relations with the United States.

Obama concluded that the two-state solution ‘is in Israel’s interest, Palestine’s interest, America’s interest, and the world’s interest. And that is why I intend to personally pursue this outcome with all the patience and dedication that the task requires.’

Obama’s speech was lent emotional weight by the speaker’s own biography. In its optimism, though, this was a quintessentially American argument. Even Obama’s final line was a homage to his predecessor John Kennedy, who ended his inaugural address by calling on his audience to ‘go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.’

Cynics will say that you cannot fight terrorism with cue cards. That is surely true, and all the hard policy work is still to be done. But a speech can open people’s minds.

The president’s words seem to have been well-received by Muslims – and not only those in the hall chanting ‘Obama! Obama!’ An Egyptian friend of mine, the scholar and journalist Khalil al-Anani, made this comment: ‘Today might be the 12th of September, 2001, because I think he closed that chapter of 9/11 and called for a new chapter in U.S. relations with the Muslim world.’

Not every Muslim listener was so positive, of course – many were unimpressed and some were positively contemptuous. But perhaps the best indication of Obama’s success is the anger of his opponents: the attempted pre-emptive rebuttal by Al-Qaeda and the screeching from Tehran and Hezbollah. If the extremists are this worried, then the Cairo address may turn out to be one of Barack Obama’s most consequential speeches.