On June 4th, President Obama fulfilled one of his campaign promises. That is to give a policy speech in a major Arab capital. His speech focused on reaching out to the Arab world and asking for a new beginning between Arabs and the West. President Obama called on Americans and Muslims around the world together to have a “new beginning” based on “mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition.” He shared his broad background of having a Muslim Kenyan father, living in Indonesia, working in Chicago communities with those of the Muslim faith, and being a Christian himself. He recalled that the first country to recognize the United States as a country was Morocco, a Muslim country.
After laying the foundation for his speech, Obama addressed 3 major issues – Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Middle East. On the Afghanistan issue, he made clear that “we seek no military bases there.” He made clear the United States was in Afghanistan to pursue violent extremists “determined to kill as many Americans as they possibly can.” He acknowledged that a military solution alone will not solve the issues facing Afghanistan and Pakistan pledging support of foreign aid to build schools, infrastructure, and to “develop their economy (referring to the Afghan economy) and deliver services that people depend on.”
Obama was blunt on the Iraq issue. He called Iraq a “war of choice” and acknowledged that even though the Iraqi people are probably better off without Saddam Hussein, he shared the lessons we have learned from this choice namely – “the need to use diplomacy and build international consensus to resolve our problems whenever possible.” He talked about America’s responsibility “to help Iraq forge a better future — and to leave Iraq to Iraqis.” and he discussed his orders to support this responsibility which is the removal of all troops by 2012.
Finally on the issue of Middle East peace, Obama was upfront and honest. He addressed the fact that the United States and Israel have close ties. He acknowledge the “the pain of dislocation” and “the daily humiliations ” of the Palestinian people. He endorsed a 2 state solution “where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.” He listed things that both sides must do. For the Palestinians, he said they must abandon violence and develop a capability to govern. For the Israelis, he stated that they must acknowledge the Palestinians right to exist and called on the Israeli “settlements to stop.”
Obama also discussed the issues of nuclear weapons, democracy and religious freedom. Obama ended his speech with references from the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faiths talking about peace. His speech seem to be well received from the audience and certainly set a new tone in United State policy towards the Arab and Muslim community.
Whether you agree or disagree with Obama’s policies, I think you would be hard pressed to disagree that this speech was not necessary. After the attacks of September 11th, 2001, the United States had the entire world offering their assistance and condolences for the event that occurred to our citizens. In my humble opinion, this country squandered that good will by pursuing our own agenda in Iraq and other parts of the world. In the interest of full disclosure, I will say that I initially supported our invasion of Iraq, but as more facts became apparent, I became convinced that our invasion of Iraq was unnecessary and harmful to our country’s security. Now with the election of new leadership in the White house, the U.S. once again can set a new direction and tone.
President Obama’s speech in Cairo was the first step in setting this new tone. It will be interesting to see what immediate steps the Obama Administration takes to take the goodwill and new tone from this speech and put it into actionable events. If Obama does not act in the coming weeks and months, his speech will have done nothing to restore goodwill and positive thoughts of America in other parts of the world.
After Obama was elected President in November, I took a trip to India. Everyone that I talked to in India was excited to hear my thoughts on Obama. They were excited to have a new U.S. President who would take a different approach. I think that similar conversations were taking places in other parts of world as well. I think we are seeing the start of this new tone and approach.