I have an embarrassing admission: I may have been too harsh in my judgment of Barack Obama's speech in Cairo. Maybe years of reading the words of politicians with a critical eye, always looking for the rotten core of hypocrisy and dissembling, have made me too reflexive in my rejection of the potential for real change; I was dead certain it would just be a shiny new coat of paint on the same decrepit house, and I suppose I saw exactly what I'd convinced myself I was going to see. Perhaps I've just made too much of a habit of skepticism to let myself believe in the possibility for transformative honesty in our deeply-corrupted system.
Whatever the case, I decided to read Obama's speech again, but this time with a mind cleared of all prejudice and preconceptions—and as much as it pains me to say so given how hard I've been on him in the past, I have to admit I was impressed to hear an American politician (finally) say some of these things. Let's look at a few excerpts. First, there was the deference for Muslim culture and traditions:
We have great respect for the commitment that all Muslims make to faith, family, and education. And Americans of many backgrounds seek to learn more about the rich tradition of Islam. [...] I have asked young Americans to study the language and customs of the broader Middle East. And for the first time in our nation's history, we have added a Koran to the White House Library.
That bit about the Koran was particularly bold since it was bound to be red meat for conservatives in this country (especially given his own background), but he took it even farther later, mentioning "the revelation of God's word in the holy Koran to the prophet Muhammad" and observing that "today this word inspires faithful Muslims to lead lives of honesty and integrity and compassion."
The flip side of his respect for Islam was the way he used the secular and inclusive "E Pluribus Unum" to characterize the U.S. rather than the more divisive or religious alternatives favored by some other presidents I could mention:
Our country's citizens come from diverse backgrounds and cultures, which has enabled us to realize the vision embodied in our first national motto: "E Pluribus Unum," meaning "Out of many, one."
These are all just platitudes, you might say (and I wouldn't argue with you)—but consider the importance of this respectful approach, given the audience. And in any case, there were plenty of specifics as well, like his commitment to a state of Palestine and his recognition of the suffering of the Palestinians:
I'm committed to two democratic states -- Israel and Palestine -- living side-by-side in peace and security. I'm committed to a Palestinian state that has territorial integrity and will live peacefully with the Jewish state of Israel. [...] The Palestinian people have suffered from decades of corruption and violence and the daily humiliation of occupation.
"The Palestinian people have suffered the daily humiliation of occupation"? Now that's political dynamite. But throughout the speech he refused to kowtow to AIPAC and Israel, as though he was unconcerned with the potential political cost:
Israel also has a large stake in the success of a democratic Palestine. Permanent occupation threatens Israel's identity and democracy. A stable, peaceful Palestinian state is necessary to achieve the security that Israel longs for. So I challenge Israel to take concrete steps to support the emergence of a viable, credible Palestinian state.
"I challenge Israel"? Tough language like that certainly isn't going to make him more popular in Tel Aviv. And he refused to back down on his demand that Israel stop all settlement activity, going so far as to cite U.N. resolution 242 (with its incendiary language about "the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war"):
Israeli settlement activity in occupied territories must stop. And the occupation must end through withdrawal to secure and recognize boundaries consistent with United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338. [...] Israel should also show a respect, a respect for and concern about the dignity of the Palestinian people who are and will be their neighbors.
After reading this speech I can almost bring myself to understand how some supporters of Israel might consider him "pro-Palestinian". He's still got a long way to go, but this is an important start.
Moving on, there was this detailed declaration of his commitment to a full and unconditional withdrawal from Iraq (one of the very welcome changes from his predecessor):
This withdrawal will take place in two stages: The first stage will occur [in 2009], when Iraqi forces assume the lead for security operations in all major population centers, while U.S. combat forces move out of Iraqi cities and move into an overwatch role. After this transition has occurred, the drawdown of American forces will continue to the second stage, with all U.S. forces returning home from Iraq by the end of 2011.
And then there were his thoughtful overtures to the people of Iran and his embrace of multilateralism on a host of global issues—worth quoting at length to fully appreciate the depth of the compassion he made a point of showing during this wide-ranging speech:
Let me speak directly to the citizens of Iran: America respects you, and we respect your country. We respect your right to choose your own future and win your own freedom. And our nation hopes one day to be the closest of friends with a free and democratic Iran.
To overcome dangers in our world, we must also take the offensive by encouraging economic progress, and fighting disease, and spreading hope in hopeless lands. Isolationism would not only tie our hands in fighting enemies, it would keep us from helping our friends in desperate need. We show compassion abroad because Americans believe in the God-given dignity and worth of a villager with HIV/AIDS, or an infant with malaria, or a refugee fleeing genocide, or a young girl sold into slavery.
There was also the bold new approach he took on Iran—granting their right to have civilian nuclear power so long as they'll give up their pursuit of nuclear weapons:
[The international community has] made the Iranian regime offers that would enable Iran to have a civil nuclear energy program. [...] Iran's true interests lie in working with the international community to enjoy the benefits of peaceful nuclear energy, not in isolating Iran by continuing to develop the capability to build nuclear weapons.
And finally, the religious and cultural sensitivity he exhibited as he made it clear that he understands how misguided it is to blame Islam—or any religion—for the behavior of a small minority of violent extremists who threaten us all:
By deliberately murdering the innocent to advance their aims, these extremists defy the fundamental principles of international order. They show contempt for all who respect life and value human dignity. They reject the words of the Bible, the Koran, the Torah, or any standard of conscience or morality.
Yes, it was quite a speech. After reading it a second time I think I can almost begin to understand the ecstatic praise so many liberals offered Obama after they heard it (which I admit I first thought was not only embarrassing but dangerously naive). After all, who could fail to respond to such an intelligent, thoughtful, nuanced, articulate, compassionate attempt to begin a genuine dialogue with the rest of the world? Honestly, I think even the most unrepentant leftist reading these words with an open mind would have to admit that they show just how different Barack Obama is in every imaginable way from George W. Bush—and more generally, the huge differences between Democrats and Republicans.
There's just one problem: none of these quotes were actually taken from Barack Obama's speech. Not a single word. They are quotes from an American president, though. No points for guessing which one at this point, but if you need a hint I can tell you that he was in office from January of 2001 through January of 2009.
(Observant readers may have noticed that I gave away the game with the Iraq withdrawal quote—since unlike Bush, who as you can see cited the correct date of 2011 that's mandated by the U.S./Iraqi Status of Forces Agreement, Obama apparently feels he has the right to unilaterally change the negotiated terms of that agreement and declare that U.S. troops Iraq won't leave until 2012.)
As these quotes make clear, there's scarcely a sentiment in Obama's Cairo speech that wasn't already spoken by George W. Bush. And yet when Obama offers the same platitudes—sometimes in the exact same words—credulous liberals are seized by fits of swooning and enraptured praise just shy of glossolalia. Obama's speech wasn't some epoch-defining moment of transformation from a "transcendent leader"; it was a moment of polished stagecraft from a consummate salesman for American empire and corporate capitalism. It was the same old wine in a lovely new bottle, from someone who's already shown us repeatedly that his words aren't matched by his actions. And had it been their arch-nemesis George Bush giving this speech instead of the Anointed One, they'd have had no trouble seeing that.
One can only hope that some day these people will embrace the habit of skepticism for all politicians, not just the ones on the other side, and finally and fully accept that fine words alone mean nothing at all—no matter who speaks them.