Saturday, June 13, 2009

Obama in Cairo - Reactions

President Obama's speech at Cairo University June 4 was important.

A great amount of analysis already has transpired.

Analysis also will appear in this space following the forthcoming major foreign policy address tomorrow from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. He will speak at Bar-Ilan University.

Observant readers will see immediately the challenges faced by politicians, and by anyone with responsible concern for the region. Obama is a politician. As such, his speeches are political craft by definition, yet his speech is dubbed a speech to the "Muslim world." Have we ever in our lives seen a politician address him or herself to "the Catholic world," or to the "Buddhist world"?

One sentence in the Obama speech reads:
Experience guides my conviction that partnership between America and Islam must be based on what Islam is, not what it isn't.
Partnership between Islam and America? What are we talking about here? How about a partnership between Hinduism and Russia? Or a partnership between Zoroastrians and the Marshall Islands?

What was the big flash point in the Cairo speech? The issue of settlements. Do settlements have anything to do with Islam?


The issue of settlements is a political matter, NOT a religious one. But wait! For Jews (at least for many Jews) it IS a religious matter.

This tiny observation points to the very tip of the complexity and difficulty of the region, and of how to understand and distinguish between words and actions of politicians, and the nature of religions and religious communities.

Tomorrow we will hear another political speech, again, likely to render politics and policy issues into language evoking religious passions, and laced with religious justification and sanction.

These are interesting times. These are two strong and impressive politicians, and we must (as always) pay very close attention. We are enjoined to pray for our leaders.

In the mean time, I have sought for Leaves readers two sample reactions to President Obama's Cairo speech, one from among Muslim thinkers, another from an Israeli perspective.

I sought commentary that is clear and unequivocal, while simultaneously moderate in tone and disposition.

The Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) sits on a very progressive horizon of Muslim thinking. Follows are the thoughts of several thinkers convened to analyze and comment upon President Obama's Cairo speech.

After that is a clear flow of Israeli response to the speech. The Wall Street Journal is always reliable to write quietly but forcefully with a conservative lean in its editorial content.

Here are the speakers from the CSID and the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) panel:
The Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) and the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) co-hosted a panel discussion on Thursday, June 4, 2009 entitled "Analyzing Obama's Speech to the Muslim World." The panelists were Geneive Abdo of The Century Foundation, Richard Eisendorf of Freedom House and Will Marshall, of the Progressive Policy Institute. Radwan Masmoudi, President of CSID, moderated the panel.

Masmoudi expressed his apprehension that President Obama would not prominently feature democracy and human rights in his speech. He was pleasantly surprised, however, that democracy was among the speech's main themes. He noted that after twenty years of deterioration of US-Muslim relations due to mistrust, misunderstandings and a lack of information and knowledge on both sides, President Obama's speech set a new course. And while Obama's speech opened hearts and minds in the Muslim world, Masmoudi warned that people in the region would expect concrete, policy-based follow up to his words.

Marshall labeled the speech as "masterful;" noting Obama' unique ability to delicately address complicated issues while simultaneously providing clear solutions in his speeches. As a corollary, he contrasted Bush's use of the imperative voice in communicating with the Muslim world with Obama's deft tone imbued with honesty and respect. He argued that this approach had a disarming effect to those who are inherently distrustful of the United States and burdens its detractors to justify their clichéd beliefs.

Will Marshall at CSIDWhile his overall assessment was positive, Marshall insisted on including three caveats to his praise. First, he worried that Obama's message of reconciliation conceded too much to the al-Qaeda narrative of victimization. Marshall argued that it was not Obama's role to reinforce Muslim feelings of identity politics; rather, it was his duty to debunk them. Second, he noted that the historical animosity between the US and the Muslim world would not change in one speech. He argued that Obama spoke to a tough-minded audience and that radicalism and extremism would not bend to rhetorical sweet-talking. In this vein insisted that values should guide US policy and that America should reap the consequences of such an endeavor. Third, he argued that for Obama's efforts to be seen as a departure from Bush-era policies ignores the real problem of fifty years of America's short-minded policies of allying with expedient allies against Communism and radical Islamism. This track record only reinforced his belief that the United States must align with ordinary people's aspirations against their governments and not step back from promoting democracy.

Geneive Abdo characterized Obama's approach as "evasive" and devoid of any real policy prescriptions. And while he addressed buzzwords such as colonialism and occupation, she argued Obama's approach was not nearly expansive enough. She continued by noting how Obama's rhetorical brilliance raised expectation so high that Iran and al-Qaeda had preemptively issued statements responding to his speech. She continued by critiquing Obama's use of extremism as a foil in his speech. She argued that the debate was already well beyond this dichotomy and that Obama should have used his speech to address the political, economic and social reasons for extremism's regional constituency.

She also noted the originality of using the affluence and freedom of America's Muslim community as an argument in the US's favor. She did not think this argument would be particularly persuasive given the divergence of circumstances among Muslims in the United States and the Middle East. On the War in Iraq, Abdo criticized the president for not apologizing for the invasion and not offering concrete plans for the country. She did admit, however, that he at least repudiated the Bush notion that Iraq was a war of necessity and not one of choice. Abdo also believed that Obama criticized the Palestinians far more than the Israelis in his speech, but did note how the president's tough rhetoric revealed a burgeoning rift between the US and Israel. In summation, she graded the presentation of his remarks highly but felt the substance of the speech was mediocre and that the conflict between the two sides was rooted in policy and not a lack of respect.

Richard Eisendorf noted the choice of Cairo as the venue for the speech as the center of the Arab world and that the diversity of the crowd represented the full breadth of Egyptian public opinion. He then pointed to the loud applause during sections on democracy and human rights as evidence the crowd was not full of Mubarak loyalists. Acknowledging the concerns of his fellow panelists, he asserted that while policy follow up to the speech will be the most important element of his outreach to the Muslim world, the speech did leave a very strong feeling of respect in the way the United States under Obama intends to reach out to the Muslim world. He also pointed to the three D's the administration has heretofore considered the cornerstones of its foreign policy: diplomacy, development and defense. He argued that in the president's speech he appeared to add the fourth 'D' of democracy to the fold.

Eisendorf also highlighted the shift Obama intended to make from Bush policies and how that would affect public opinion in the region. He specifically mentioned the straightforward manner in which Obama addressed the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. He also noted the significance of the president's use of the word 'Palestine' and other key buzzwords. In addition, he believed many in the region would find his rhetoric on this issue insufficient. As a final point, Eisendorf felt Obama finally established his doctrine of 'quiet diplomacy based on mutual respect.'

In his summary statement, Masmoudi noted that while the tone of the speech was largely positive, it only represented the beginning of the administration's engagement with the Muslim world and that implementing the ideas of the speech would be a tremendous challenge. Meeting this challenge, he said, would require the concerted effort both by the domestic American reform constituency as well as positive steps by the Muslim world.

Here is the commentary out of the Wall Street Journal:

Why Israelis Are Cool on the Obama Speech
What's needed is an affirmation of Israel's historical right to exist.


A friend asked me to explain why people in Israel, including seasoned peace activists, felt less than buoyant about Barack Obama's speech in Cairo last week.

In theory, Mr. Obama's speech has affirmed everything Israelis have ever hoped for. Peaceful coexistence and mutual acceptance with its Arab neighbors has been the ultimate dream of the Zionist movement since the Balfour Declaration of 1917. So, why not embrace a major U.S. presidential speech that calls for concrete steps to advance that dream?

My friend reminded me of the outburst of joy that seized the Jewish world on Nov. 29, 1947, when the United Nations voted to partition the Biblical land into a Jewish and an Arab state of roughly equal size. There was hardly a dissenting voice then among Israelis. Half a century later, the peace offers that Ehud Barak made to Yasser Arafat in 2000 and that Ehud Olmert made to Abu Mazen in 2009 prove that the idea of a two-state utopia is still firmly lodged in the psyche of most Israelis. Why then weren't Israelis ecstatic over Mr. Obama's speech?

There are two main reasons.

The first stems from crossed signals that are blocking the resumption of peace talks. Palestinians view Israeli settlement construction as the litmus test for Israel's intentions vis-à-vis a future Palestinian state. Israelis view Palestinian textbooks, TV programs and mosque sermons to be the litmus test of Palestinian intentions. A society that teaches its youngsters to negate its neighbor's legitimacy, so the argument goes, cannot be serious about respecting a peace accord as permanent.

Mr. Obama's speech, keenly recognizing the importance of emitting trust-building signals to break the stalemate, had crisp and stern words to say about Israeli settlements but hardly a word about Palestinian denial and incitement. "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements," the president said. "It is time for these settlements to stop."

The hoped-for reciprocal sentence -- "It is time for Palestinian incitements to stop" -- was conspicuously absent. Commentaries on Israeli TV noted disappointedly that not a single demand was addressed to the Palestinian Authority.

This has left many Israelis wondering if the Obama administration is aware of the fierce, subterranean "battle of intentions" that has prevented the peace process from moving forward. In Israel, even the harshest opponent of the settlement movement would not support the emergence of a sovereign neighbor, rocket range away, that is unwilling to invest in education for a lasting peace.

A call for a simultaneous freeze on both Israeli settlements and Palestinian incitement, clad in timetables and monitoring methods, would have invited both sides to an equal honesty test. That test could help jump start the "new beginning" that Mr. Obama called for.

Secondly, Mr. Obama's rationale for Israel's legitimacy began with the Holocaust, not with the birthplace of Jewish history. "The aspiration for a Jewish homeland," he said, "is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied." Who else defines Israel's legitimacy that way? Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad does. Iran sees Israel as a foreign entity to the region, hastily created to sooth European guilt over the Holocaust. Israelis consider this distortion of history to be an assault on the core of their identity as a nation.

An affirmation of "Israel's historical right to exist," based on a 2,000-year continuous quest to rebuild a national homeland, is what the region needs to hear from Mr. Obama. The magic words "historical right" have the capacity to change the entire equation in the Middle East. They convey a genuine commitment to permanence, and can therefore invigorate the peace process with the openness and goodwill that it has been lacking thus far.

I hope that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a policy speech this Sunday, makes historic recognition an axiomatic part of any peace agreement, and that Mr. Obama backs him up. This would turn Mr. Obama's speech in Cairo into a huge leap forward in the quest for peace and understanding in the region.

Mr. Pearl, a professor of computer science at UCLA, is president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, founded in memory of his son to promote cross-cultural understanding.


Anonymous said...

Thank you again Frank for your contribution to our understanding of important events of the day. The perspective of Mr. Obama continues to challenge the conservatives and emboldens certain Progressives of which he either continues to mollify or he may just be their bandleader extraordinaire.
The debate needs to transcend US centered parochialism but his seeming denial of the American contributions internationally IMO is evidenced as well. I feel the jury is still out on our new President as he sounds good but his national and international policy development requires diligent overview IMO.
Steve Evans
Melbourne Aust.

Anonymous said...

Providential realities aside, think about the ramifications of rooting the present-day justification of Israel's existence in what happened thousands of years ago.

If the US formally endorses that theory, we just opened pandora's box to approve every claim of every group that owned territory for the last 4 millenia and beyond. That would be the end of peace as we know it.

Also, to broaden the debate a bit, here are some interesting and perhaps legitimate contrarian perspectives to help understand other points of view on the region:

Karyn said...

This speech is a valuable contribution to dialogues among Christians, Muslims and Jews. We now have a public statement of the United States political leadership's viewpoint, ideological desires and political stances regarding Islam.

A good quote from a powerful person can give credence to a cause. So, it is my hope that many of these statements will be be used to initiate and reinforce peacemaking projects.

As President Obama said, "no single speech can eradicate years of mistrust... But I am convinced that in order to move forward, we must say openly to each other the things we hold in our hearts... There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground." After former President Bush's many divisive words and actions toward Islam, and apparent ignorance, Obama has taken up the helm in a responsible way, starting with this peace-seeking speech.

Anonymous said...

To summarize in a few words:Obama's speech is a declaration and invitation for peace; The Netanyahu speech a declaration and invitation for more war.
Just one example from the many:Obama wants a two "state" solution. Nethanjahu definition for a Palestinian "state" is a sort of Coney Island, an amusement park, when he says they could have their flag and anthum, but no military and weapons. Maybe Obama needs to define for Nethanjahu what constitutes a "State". More over, going back in history selectively,as Nethanjahu did, does not contribute to contemporary peace, but to more wars. Do we remember Milotsovitz using this same "once upon a time" mechanism? The shameful part of this mechanism is that it is used to mobilize for war,never for peace.

Laurence said...

Here's some interesting articles that expand the debate a bit.

What do you think about a Free Trade Agreement between the US and moderate Arab nations, starting with Palestine, Jordan, Egypt etc?


Kate Tsubata said...

Kate Tsubata wrote:

This is the second post I've received about the speech, (one from Daniel Davies, another great thinker and writer.)

I think we must recognize some of the groundbreaking aspects of this--that it involved a direct outreach to Islam, that it confronted a number of issues directly, and that it is a call to engagement for everyone.

I feel that the president's role (not so much the constitutional one, but the de facto one) is one of articulation and encouragement. Each president articulates some ideals, nationally or internationally, which create dialogue, and hopefully, action.

Creating peace is a challenging goal, because it takes only one person's disagreement to keep hostility and anger alive, and goodness knows each person has the propensity to nurse his or her own sense of injury and injustice. Staying on our historic "sides" can never bring peace. We need to radically shift our viewpoint in some manner; to see from a position that is outside of all the previously experienced positions.

Obama is trying to do something that is both dangerous and exciting--to incite a rebellion among the reasonable and freedom-loving to raise their own voices. It's not Jew, Christian, Muslim...who have a lot more in agreement than the politicists would have us think. It's not democracy vs. monarchy. It's not West vs. East.

The ultimate confrontation is the question: Do I want the best for everyone, or just what I think is the best for me and mine?

This seems easy, but it is so hard that most of us fall into the second category.

So the challenge for Obama--and for all people--is to shift the thinking from "what benefits my group" to "what benefits all humanity."

Or to frame it differently "what doesn't hurt my group, and doesn't hurt any other group either."

Not an easy task.


Frank Kaufmann said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Laurence said...


The third link should be:

David Burgess said...

Many excellent points in all the commentary but I find myself agreeing with Steve about the US-centric nature of the message. The left seems to believe that the problem of the Middle East is that Washington has for too long been run by conservatives, and now that Obama has arrived with his good intentions, all will be different. President Bush could not make peace in the Middle East because he put US interests first and foremost, and could not be seen as a fair arbitor by Arabs. But so far the thrust of the Obama foreign policy seems to be that the good guys are now in charge in D.C. That is still, unfortunately, more about internal American politics and less about the realities on the ground in hotspots around the world. As Iran and North Korea, not to mention Benyamin Netayahu, are clearly demonstrating, those good intentions have nothing to do with what's really going on in the world. I'm nervous.

shrivatsa said...

Dear Friend,
It is unfortunate that even in the 21st century we are stuck with the world devided on the name of religious affiliation. Why politicians do not show the courage to address the ills of our world for one human community? Why do we succumb to religious sectarianism? Its a dangerous trend and we all are victim of it.

gla said...

It is good to try to heal wounds that were exacerbated during the Bush administration, but by addressing Islam from the position of a political leader, I don't think Obama has the relationship between church and state down right. If he is really promoting modern democracy, cultural values have to be more separated from politics, leaving democratic process and pluralism as the primary value. When a political system adopts religious values, i.e., official truth statements, blocks to free and scientific thought are created.

Also, Israel ought to let Palestine secede if it wants, for only in freedom can those people gain self-respect. However, Palestine has never shown that it has the capability to police itself. Syria and factions in Lebanon have been able to control it when Israel's forces are absent. Any military presence of their forces after Israel withdraws, should be considered reason for the international community to intervene.

Mohamad A Jodeh said...

Thank you Frank,

For this window of Mind's Building.

I enjoyed reading your thoughts,analysis and comments.

Mohamad A Jodeh

Samvel Jeshmaridian said...

Thank You Frank,
You are able to create the right situations at the right time with the right persons.
President Obama's speech in Cairo which, in fact, had started in Turkey on a wrong track, a few weeks ago, was neither a religious speech nor a political declaration. It was an educational lecture -- how U.S. experts perceive, interprete, and use World Religions and Holy Books in their practice. Such socio-political approach cannot target the right goal -- the peace processin the Miidle East, something that the just, baby-faced and highly talented President frankly wants to reach!
Samvel Jeshmaridian, PhD

Emil Kurcik , Marie Nemcova said...

Dear Dr. Kaufmann,

Thank you very much for your “Leaves” and “Post”. We have read this very carefully. We are appreciating you for your activity which is very useful for world peace, understanding and international relations. We are very proud that we can share your thoughts.

Emil Kurcik
Marie Nemcova