Freedom New Mexico
President Obama’s address last week in Cairo, primarily directed toward Muslims in the Middle East but also toward an audience back home eager for signs of progress on issues that seem close to irresolvable, was an artful, nuanced and generally balanced invitation to discussion and diplomacy rather than hostility and conflict.
Whether it will be seen as anything more than simply a fine speech, of course, depends on whether progress toward resolution of long-standing disputes follows. It will take years to assess that, but we may see some portents in the next few weeks.
Only a few commentators have noted how similar in substance the speech was to sentiments expressed by the president’s predecessor.
In a September 2006 speech at the United Nations, George W. Bush sought “to speak directly to the people across the broader Middle East.” He explained the United States is not at war with Islam, that those of concern are a tiny slice of violent extremists. He spoke of “the daily humiliation of occupation” suffered by Palestinians, came out strongly for a two-state solution, and noted that “freedom, by its nature, cannot be imposed.”
Because of his personal and political history and his superior communications skills, President Obama may be taken more seriously in the Muslim world than President Bush. It is striking, however, how little his actual policies differ from President Bush’s. His timetable for leaving Iraq is the same as Bush’s, and is similarly hedged with conditions. Most Republicans have endorsed his escalation of the war in Afghanistan.
This is not necessarily encouraging.
Open-ended U.S. occupation of Muslim countries is one of the main reasons al-Qaida and other groups can recruit terrorists. Ending occupations would do much more to reduce the threat from terrorism than trying again to push an Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution neither side seems ready to accept.
We may get an early indicator as to whether the president reached the “Muslim street.” Lebanon is holding an election this week in which Hezbollah seeks to expand its governmental influence. The voluble and irresponsible President Ahmadinejad of Iran is being challenged in elections the following week. If Muslim voters reject extremism, it would be a hopeful sign.