Dispatch June 2009

Obama Shines in Cairo

In a brilliant speech, Obama extended the American dream to include the world's Muslims and put Iran on the defensive

One can take apart President Barack Obama’s speech to the Muslim world delivered at Cairo University today, and subject its sentences to all manner of criticism and analysis, but its overall effect was magnificent. It employed the forward-looking optimism of the American Dream in the service of the hopes and frustrations of youth throughout the Islamic cultural continuum. It also restored the kind of public relations magic that America possessed overseas in the years immediately after World War II. Obama is no doubt more popular among Muslim youth than many of their own leaders.

The President spoke of a “new beginning,” about not being “prisoners of the past,” about how the “enduring faith of a billion should not be hostage to a few extremists.” He spoke about religious freedom, not only for Muslims, but for the Christian minorities in their midst – like the Copts in Egypt and the Maronites in Lebanon. He spoke about women’s rights, and how “education and innovation,” as practiced by Muslim states like Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates, are the “currencies of the 21st century.” He didn’t defend the forcible implementation of democracy, but he did defend good government and civil society in all countries. Thus, he spoke of democracy in philosophical terms rather than in legalistic ones. And he consistently addressed the hopes of his audiences rather than their fears.

He did all this with a polished delivery – pronouncing correctly all Arabic and other foreign names – and without generally apologizing for America. He said America’s commitment to Afghanistan will not falter; that Iraq was better off without Saddam Hussein; and that America’s bond with Israel is unbreakable. He said, in an obvious reference to the rants of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that Holocaust denial and the promotion of stereotypes and anti-Semitism are wrong. Indeed, he noted that the important question for Iran is not what it is against, but what kind of a future it wants to build. By making America’s historical vision of a future city on a hill synonymous with that of his young Muslim audience, he instantly put Iran on the defensive.

We live in an electronic media age, and public relations is now a crucial part of the strategic battlespace. In Cairo, Obama went a long way toward reclaiming that territory. In and of itself, the speech may not change much on the ground, but it underscores a new American strategy toward the Islamic world. As he reminded his audience, this is an American president who has known Islam on three continents – America, Africa, and the Indonesian archipelago. He thus comes armed with credentials for the battle against extremism. And as he also reminded his audience, he is merely one example of a newly diverse America, in which seven million Muslim citizens enjoy incomes and educational advantages higher than the national average.

Iranian extremists like President Ahmadinejad will not be able to confront the Obama phenomenon head-on. For the Obama phenomenon is really that of America putting its best foot forward. Iran will have to make an accommodation with it. That fact alone indicates the brilliance of the Administration’s new Middle East diplomacy. He made no promises, and clearly indicated that “patience” would be required to see an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement through. But by putting his vision of Muslim world civilization in the context of what America has always fundamentally stood for, he leveraged hundreds of millions of Muslims against the much fewer number of extremists in their midst.

Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, a contributing editor at The Atlantic, and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

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