Four months ago I was in Cairo, invited to address an international economic forum that was attended by government officials, diplomats and business leaders.
My presentation focused not only on the economic crisis still unfolding in the United States, but touched also on the foreign policies likely to be pursued by our new president. In the question and answer period following my remarks, a number of attendees asked whether the new administration in Washington would in fact significantly alter America’s mid-east policies.
Now, thanks to President Obama’s historic speech last Thursday at Cairo University, we have an answer to that question. U.S. policy in the Middle East has changed; in tone and substance.
If the Obama administration follows through on the president’s vision presented last week in the centuries-old mosque, then American influence in that troubled part of the world, which has fallen dramatically in recent years, is certain to increase.
Obama began his remarks with a noticeable omission – neglecting to thank or otherwise pay homage to his host, President Hosni Mubarak – whose nearly three-decade long tenure at Egypt’s helm, is widely criticized as making a mockery of the country’s claim of democratic rule. More important was the signal this sent that his speech was not directed to Egypt alone, but to a much broader audience.
Obama devoted much of his presentation to dramatically altering the fundamental tone of American policy from one constricted by blinders, to one of openness and understanding. Importantly, the president did this without jettisoning the fundamental planks underpinning long-standing American foreign policy. Thus, even as he spoke of a “new beginning” emphasizing understanding and respect for the Muslim world, Obama unequivocally reiterated our intolerance for terrorism and violence against civilians.
And, while reminding his Egyptian audience of American’s willingness to work in cooperation with Arab governments, he made clear this “new beginning” would not come at the expense of our long-standing, “unbreakable” ties with Israel. He similarly linked understanding of and support for the aspirations of the Palestinians for a state, without undercutting Israel’s legitimate claim to statehood.
In carefully nuanced remarks stressing that the U.S. continues to support democracy and democratic ideals in all aspects of governance, including women’s rights and education, Obama was careful to draw a clear distinction with his predecessor, who advocated (by deeds if not words) the forceful imposition of our democratic model on other countries and cultures.
The American president criticized the current Iranian regime headed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad both for its intemperate and anti-Israeli rhetoric and policies, as well as for its efforts to obtain nuclear weaponry. Even here, Obama’s preference for a carrot-and-stick approach was evident, when he explicitly recognized Iran’s right to pursue peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The president also seemed to caution Israel against pursuing a nuclear attack on Iran, when he noted that American policy was not only to stop Iran’s acquisition of nukes, but also to prevent a regional nuclear arms race.
Another gauntlet was thrown down by the president – this one to the U.S. Congress, which recently and temporarily derailed his plan to shutter the military prison at Guantanamo. Obama seemed to call Congress’ bluff by declaring unequivocally in Cairo that the prison would be closed “by early next year.”
The well-crafted speech by an American president in the heart of the Muslim world was at once highly symbolic and substantive. But Obama was careful not to be so specific as to prematurely lock his administration into a pre-conceived road map – a mistake that doomed efforts by previous U.S. presidents seeking vainly to accomplish what this chief executive has achieved within his first five months in office.