Thoughts on President Obama’s Cairo Speech

June 5, 2009

With all the surrounding hoopla, it was almost impossible for President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo not to disappoint. That said, Obama did the best that could be done with an impossible task. With only a couple of exceptions, the speech contained absolutely no surprises, but it was delivered earnestly enough to project sincerity and hope—two qualities that his audience was listening for.

It was a tricky undertaking. Obama was essentially addressing two audiences; the governments of the region and the people of the region and the interests of those two groups can be mutually exclusive. The people, who feel that the United States has long supported undemocratic regimes in the region for its own ends, wanted to hear not only that the U.S. supports democratic reform and human rights, but if—and how—it would help them achieve them. It’s a subject that would have been considered discourteous by those regimes, to say the least. The topic was broached in the same polite, non-confrontational way as the rest of the speech. It was alluded to in the most general terms without any finger-pointing or specific suggestions. For those listening who are supportive of this new president (and there are many) it was hardly satisfactory, but just enough to avoid serious disappointment.

There were only two areas of the speech that managed to avoid the politely unremarkable formula. They were both, however, significant ones. He addressed the Israeli-Palestinian issue in surprisingly strong terms for a U.S. president. Of course, most of his predecessors have waffled about the importance of peace (some of them working harder than others to help achieve it). However, while Obama made it clear that both Israelis and the Palestinians had responsibilities that they were failing to live up to, he placed more emphasis on Palestinian suffering than the Arab world is used to hearing from an American diplomat. He also made it clear that the United States had finally recognized that a solution to this issue is not only in the interests of general peace, it is specifically in its own interests. It was a smart move. Bringing it up so early in his speech was even smarter; it earned enough good will to coast on the tide of polite banalities that followed.

He left his second good point until the end. He specifically recognized that many of the region’s problems are economic, caused partly by poor economic infrastructure and partly by an ever-widening knowledge gap between many Muslim-majority countries and better-developed ones in the West. This, he said, was one area where the United States could step up without worrying about cultural and political minefields and it was ready and willing to do so. He was speaking in a country with an estimated 20 percent unemployment rate. Those promises of aid and investment resonated.

Perhaps the most canny comment in the speech, however, had little to do with those political or cultural minefields. It was a simple request for time. President Obama reminded his listeners that while much remains to be done, it will take time. The people of the region are used to waiting. With so much at stake, they will probably be willing to give him the time.