President Obama gave his much-hyped speech to the Muslim world today. So, how did he do? Here are some thoughts I had listening to the speech
1. Obama did an effective job of communicating changes in policy
Obama noted that he has banned the use of torture, and closing Guantanamo. On Iraq, he pledged that US forced will be out of the country by 2012, and was eloquent when he said the US will deal with Iraq as a “patron, not a partner.” All of these drew large applause from the crowd. These show that Obama is making a bona fide effort to reset US relations with the Muslim world. He was wise to make this case, and did so effectively.
2. Less attention to Iran
Here, I thought Obama did fine as well. He noted that he wants to pursue a world where there are no nuclear weapons, and that he was willing to let Iran use nuclear power peacefully. It was good that he indicated a desire to put the past behind him. But overall, he didn’t spend as much time in the speech dealing with Iran as I would have thought. He could have for example, spent more time detailing what he envisions as the future for Iran. That future could include having no sanctions, having a strong economy instead of rampant inflation, etc.
3. Israel-Palestinian conflict
Obama strongly embraced Israel and said our bonds with that country are “unbreakable” He movingly detailed the history of the holocaust and excoriated those who would deny that message—a veiled swipe at Mahmoud Achmadinejad. This was probably aimed to reassure Israel and make sure American voters know that he will not be abandoning the special relationship. But he won lots of applause when he reiterated his opposition to Israeli settlements and said he would do everything possible to make sure that Palestinians could have their own state. I tend to believe that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a good way would give the US enormous credibility with the Arab world and help build consensus to take on Iran. It was important for Obama to take this issue on.
4. Democracy and women’s’ rights
This might have been the thorniest issue to address. It’s no secret that many Arab countries including Egypt where he gave the address are not exactly democratic. Obama did his best to make sure his appeal for democracy was not seen as another western crusade. He insisted that his support for democracy promotion was based only on the human desire to have a say in how one is governed. On women’s rights, he acknowledged that many Islamic countries have elected female leaders and avoided condescension towards those in the audience. But he did press them to make sure that women could choose their roles freely and that women have as much to contribute to society as men. Overall, I thought taking on the issue of women’s rights was brave in this environment.
That all leaves me wondering what the effect of this speech will be. I think on the issue of Israel-Palestine he bought himself some goodwill in the Arab world which will give him time to address the conflict. He also won further goodwill by detailing changes in US policy and insisting that the US is not, and never will be at war with Islam. George W. Bush said similar things during his term, but this is simply more believable coming from Obama. On Iran he probably didn’t change much, and he might have caused some useful controversy when talking about democracy and women’s’ rights. I have spent most of this post focusing on the Muslim audience. But he had an American one as well. On that score he assured them that he viewed his first priority as keeping them safe. He also had the requisite tough words for Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups I don’t think he said anything to hurt his domestic political standing.