Leveraging a Big Speech

Remember Barack Obama’s trip to Israel in March, which began with very low expectations but produced a speech that many Israelis were immediately praising as a potentially game-changing moment for their country?

A few weeks later, has anything actually changed in the Israel-Palestinian relationship?

Well, it’s hard to say; both Israel (which had elections not long before Obama’s visit) and the Palestinians have been going through a lot of internal political developments, and everyone in the region has been more than a little distracted by events in Syria. But even as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stays in close personal touch with Israeli officials as a follow-up to the president’s trip, there are reports Bibi Netanyahu is planning or has already quietly implemented a freeze on settlement construction.

Sometimes major presidential speeches in other countries take a while to have an effect, but ultimately do. In the Editor’s Note for the May-June issue of the Washington Monthly, Paul Glastris suggests that may happen in the Middle East, and cites his experience with Bill Clinton as a precedent:

In November of 1999, President Bill Clinton flew to Turkey and Greece on a trip aimed at easing tensions in the broader Balkan region, and in particular between those two countries. As the Greek American on Clinton’s speechwriting staff, it fell to me to write the address he would give in Athens. The Greek-Turkish problem was not nearly as geostrategically important as the Israel-Palestine situation, but it seemed no less intractable.

Aided by the coincidence of each country responding with much-needed humanitarian aid when the other suffered a major earthquake, Clinton was able to deliver a speech that disarmed decades of anti-American feeling in Greece, much as Obama’s March speech in Israel seemed to clear the air there.

A month later, the Greek government dropped its veto of Turkey’s EU candidacy, a risky move domestically but one made less politically painful by Clinton’s speech. Today, tensions between Greece and Turkey still exist, but they are a fraction of what they once were.

This was not the only time Clinton used his rhetorical skills to alter seemingly intractable geostrategic realities. His 1995 speech in Belfast paved the way for the Good Friday Accords, and his 2000 speech before the Indian parliament launched a new strategic partnership between the world’s two biggest democracies, estranged during the Cold War.

Sometimes big speeches have big consequences.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.