The Cairo Speech

I thought Obama’s speech was really good. There was a lot to it, but I thought the key to the whole thing was this:

“I am convinced that in order to move forward, we must say openly the things we hold in our hearts, and that too often are said only behind closed doors. 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. As the Holy Koran tells us, “Be conscious of God and speak always the truth.” That is what I will try to do — to speak the truth as best I can, humbled by the task before us, and firm in my belief that the interests we share as human beings are far more powerful than the forces that drive us apart.”

Dialogue on a lot of issues in the Middle East is mind-numbingly predictable. This is most true on Israeli/Palestinian issues: whenever I see, for instance, Israeli and Palestinian commentators on TV engaged in what is described as “debate”, I can predict in advance what each side will say, and normally have to force myself not to switch the channel in annoyance.

However well it starts, it almost inevitably devolves into finger-pointing — ‘how can you discuss this topic without mentioning awful thing X, which your side did?’ ‘But X is actually completely legitimate, unlike even more awful thing Y, which your side did, and which you have predictably failed to mention’, etc., etc., etc. Even the most apparently thoughtful commenters seem to turn into hateful wind-up toys. It’s awful to watch, and its absolute predictability ensures that no one’s mind will actually be changed.

The United States has acquired its own role in this hateful charade. Predictably, we claim that we want to be an honest broker. Equally predictably, we undercut this claim by failing to be one: by backing Israel in international fora no matter what it does, and by refusing to deal straightforwardly with the issue of the settlements. George W. Bush added some special little twists: it takes a certain amount of chutzpah to lecture people about the wonders of democracy after failing to so much as try to protect the nascent democratic government in Lebanon when it came under attack, and punishing the Palestinians for voting for the wrong party. But while Bush took dishonesty in the Middle East to hallucinatory extremes, we had not been honest brokers, or willing to speak the truth, for some time before he came on the scene.

And the thing is: when you don’t tell the truth, when you allow yourself to assume a predictable, scripted role in a charade, there is no earthly reason for anyone to listen to a word you say. You act like a caricature or an automaton, not like a human being addressing other human beings; and thus there is no reason for anyone to attend to you the way we normally attend to one another.

That’s what made Obama’s speech so powerful. He broke out of the script. He didn’t say what he might have been expected to say. He did not, for instance, fudge on the settlements. That was crucial. Likewise, he acknowledged our role in the overthrow of the Mossadegh government in Iran. Likewise, I thought this bit was quite important:

“America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.”

The parts about the rule of law, the equal administration of justice, and governments not stealing from the people are, I think, about Arab states. I think it was right of Obama not to make that explicit. But it was also right for him to say clearly that he is opposed to this. I am sure people in the region will connect the dots.

There are people on both sides who didn’t like the speech. In the US, they have mostly been people who thought Obama was being too hard on Israel. I did not think he was, and I liked what he said mostly because I thought it was true. But it’s also worth noting that had he gotten up in front of an Arab audience and called out Holocaust deniers, stuck up for Israel’s right to exist, and called on the Palestinians to renounce violence, and not mentioned any issues he had with Israel, he would not have been taken seriously, because he would have stayed within the script.

The script is comfortable for some people on both sides. Not all, of course; most notably, not the people on both sides who have been killed, or who live in fear or poverty. But for others, it provides a convenient way to act tough while avoiding the really hard issues. Breaking through it and speaking like a human being who says what everyone knows to be true is not comfortable. But it is the right thing to do, and I respect Obama immensely for doing it.

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