Parsing Obama's Cairo Speech

Washington Matters

Parsing Obama's Cairo Speech

If nothing else, President Obama's speech to the Muslim world at Cairo University demonstrated his ability to use phrases guaranteed to resonate with his audience in order to advance his own ideas. That's the mark of a good diplomat, as well as an effective public speaker.

But words alone won't be nearly enough to improve U.S. relations with the Muslim world, something Obama himself acknowledged.

The president used the occasion once again to call Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory illegal and to demand an end to their construction. This is certainly something Arabs had been hoping to hear from Obama, but it is hardly the first time he has made such statements. Indeed, he has played variations on this theme repeatedly since his Washington meeting last month with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. David Ignatius, writing in his column for the Washington Post, noted that every U.S. president since the 1967 Six-Day War has made the same demand.

Where Obama may have differed from his predecessors was his use of the word "Palestine." He referred frequently to the Palestinians, to the West Bank and Gaza and to a future Palestinian state. Referring to any or all of these as Palestine, as he did twice, assumes its legitimacy as a nation, which makes the term highly politically charged.


The wording is something that Arabs and Israelis alike will zero in on. For Arabs, it signals a level of commitment to Palestinian independence beyond that of any previous U.S. president. They'll be pleased, but now more than ever, they'll expect Obama to back up his rhetoric with action, such as suspending economic aid to Israel if settlement construction continues. The Israelis recognize this, and it is straining their nerves. 

Obama devoted a considerable portion of his speech to addressing the U.S.' "unbreakable" bond with Israel, condemning anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial -- the last an undoubted swipe at Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad -- and the need for Palestinians to renounce violence as a requirement for any peace deal. But that won't be enough to reassure the Israelis. Israel's settler movement, the backbone of Netanyahu's government, lost no time in condemning the speech, as noted in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. The remarks are also likely to buy him some grief from supporters of Israel back in the U.S.

One other point that is worth making: Obama frequently couched his arguments in terms of the Koran, citing its teachings to condemn al Qaeda and to provide moral justification for the U.S. war in Afghanistan. That makes a strong contrast to President Bush's remarks in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, about launching a crusade against terrorism. For Muslims, "crusade" automatically calls up images of the Medieval Christian invasions. Bush quickly backed off use of the "C" word once he realized its historic significance, and he repeatedly tried to reassure Muslims that the U.S. was not at war with Islam, but the damage was done. It will remain a difficult image to disspell as long as the U.S. has a troops in Iraq, Afghanistan or anywhere in the Muslim world. But Obama made a good start at changing the region's perceptions of the U.S. That's what public diplomacy is all about.