There's been a blizzard of commentary on Obama's speech in Cairo, and a couple of pieces caught my eye. Daniel Levy at the New America Foundation has a thoughtful analysis up on his blog, and David Ignatius at the Washington Post hits the nail on the head regarding Obama's task going forward: Money quote:
Obama has a rare gift for seeking the middle ground -- on race, on national security, even on abortion. But it will be hard to stay in the middle on this one. Obama will have to articulate U.S. policy more clearly and emphatically than have any of his predecessors, and he will have to demonstrate that he means what he says. To make peace, he will first have to make some enemies."
We know who some of those enemies are: terrorists and other extremists whose political agendas are advanced by prolonging the conflict in the region, and whose visions are fueled by a dogmatic conviction that their particular God is on their side and that their opponents deserve nothing. It’s no surprise that Osama bin Laden issued a video message trying to pre-empt the speech, or that the Hamas spokesman said it was no different from George W. Bush. The good news is that this doesn’t seem to have been the reaction of most of his intended audience in the Muslim world (for a good rundown, see Juan Cole here). And I'm betting it played even better with broad populations than it did with various elite commentators.
Obama faces some real enemies on the other side too. Courtesy of Mondoweiss, check out this video by Max Blumenthal and Joseph Dana from Jerusalem, documenting the hatred, contempt and yes, racism of a bunch of young, drunk and rowdy Israeli-Americans in Jerusalem. I don't think one should read too much into a single video, insofar as lots of people say stupid and hateful things when they are plastered. (Remember Mel Gibson?) But words can have consequences, and we've seen too often where such sentiments can lead. Obama is looking to unite moderates in search of just and workable solutions to the region's many problems, but as Ignatius notes, rejectionists on both sides aren't going to just fold their tents.
After a day's reflection, my biggest concern is that the Cairo speech has really raised the stakes. If Obama is unable or unwilling to move beyond speechifying and make some genuine shifts in U.S. policy, he will have unintentionally reinforced Arab and Muslim beliefs that the problem is intrinsic to the United States itself, and not just to a particular period in history (e.g., the Cold War, or the post-9/11 era), or a particular president (George W. Bush). If America's first black president -- a man with a Muslim name, a cosmopolitan background, and a remarkable capacity to express his awareness of the concerns of those with whom he disagrees--cannot get beyond rhetoric, then many of the people who applauded yesterday are going to be profoundly disillusioned. Some of them will conclude that the United States is in fact at war with Islam -- no matter what Obama might say -- and extremists on both sides will be quick to say "I told you so."
Obama quoted the Bible, the Talmud, and the Koran in his speech yesterday. I'm not religious, but I think the scriptural passage that applies now is James 2:24: "You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone."
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.