President Obama's Cairo Appeal

Friday, June 5, 2009

PRESIDENT OBAMA was the first to say yesterday that one speech cannot erase the accumulated hostility and mistrust between many of the world's Muslims and the United States. But his address in Cairo offered an eloquent case for American values and global objectives -- and it looked to be a skillful use of public diplomacy in a region where America's efforts to explain itself have often been weak. Mr. Obama uttered verses from the Koran, spoke about the success of U.S. Muslims, debunked extremists' claims and defended the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians. He returned repeatedly to the theme that most of the differences between Muslims and the West can be eased by "a sustained effort to listen to each other, to learn from each other, to respect one another and to seek common ground."

That idealistic sentiment, which lies at the heart of the president's political ideology, may or may not prove true with respect to challenges such as the Israeli-Arab conflict and Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons. But Mr. Obama's address -- which was broadcast live on al-Jazeera and other popular satellite channels -- offered a stout defense of core U.S. interests while managing to sound very different from the post-Sept. 11 Bush administration. Mr. Obama said that "the first issue we have to confront is violent extremism," but he did not use the word "terrorism" and exonerated Islam from responsibility. He said that Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons had "reached a decisive point," but he did not describe the Middle East as divided between "moderates" allied with the United States and "extremists" grouped around Iran -- as the Bush administration, Israel and the region's Sunni autocrats have been prone to do.

Much of the president's speech was aimed at undermining Iranian and other extremist propaganda. Al-Qaeda's responsibility for the Sept. 11 attacks and its "determination to kill on a massive scale" were "not opinions to be debated," he said, "but facts to be dealt with"; denying the Holocaust "is baseless, it is ignorant and it is hateful." He challenged Iran to abandon its slogan of "resistance" and to say what it stands for. Mr. Obama's defense of democracy was clear, if understated; his argument for women's rights was fervent. He sent a subtle but important signal to moderate Islamists, saying that the United States would respect all peacefully expressed views and the winners of any fair election, provided they abided by the rule of law.

Inevitably, Mr. Obama's words on the Arab-Israeli conflict will attract most of the attention in the region. Promising to "say in public what we say in private," he defended the Palestinian right to statehood as fervently as he did that of Israel. He bluntly spelled out the steps needed from Palestinians, Arab states and Israel, including a "stop" to Israeli settlements. Though he offered no detailed plan or timetable, Mr. Obama -- like several presidents before him -- committed himself to pursuing a two-state solution.

Perhaps that pledge was needed to gain credibility with Muslim audiences. But Mr. Obama's challenge will be to prevent Arab leaders from diverting the broad engagement he proposed into the narrow alley of the Mideast "peace process." Though the president warned against using the issue "to distract the people of Arab nations from other problems," some were already at it yesterday: "Arabs are waiting for pressure to be exerted on Israel," said Iraq's government spokesman. Mr. Obama's initiative will fail if Israel's compliance with U.S. demands becomes the stick by which Muslims measure the "new beginning" he offered. He can avoid that pitfall by continuing to speak out about the other issues he raised -- and by publicly pressing Muslim governments for action on them.

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