I am an early riser so was able to see President Obama’s entire speech today as he delivered it at Cairo University. If a main criterion of being a successful President is to be inspirational, Obama passed that test.
It was not a speech of diplomacy per se but its prelude, setting a tone and putting forth ideals. I fear progress on the broad objectives President Obama set out in the speech will be delayed, another victim of our economic malaise. This dilutes the energy that can be focused on international goals and until domestic issues such as the deficit and unemployment are under control, the ability to make significant progress abroad will be impaired.
Nonetheless, the speech is one that realizes the hope I expressed more than a year ago in an open letter to then Senator Obama: “Some people have pointed to 9/11 as a manifestation of the clash between the Muslim and Christian worlds. Given your personal background, you have what may be a unique opportunity to establish a dialogue between these two worlds and in so doing begin to restore our international standing. Just electing you will demonstrate to the world that we can put our ideals into action.”
President Obama’s made several references to the need for honesty, putting forth some very sensitive key issues to his Egyptian audience, such as the future security of Israel and the need for Palestinian statehood, and Iran’s place in a nuclear world.
And if I am to be honest, during my lifetime the American Presidency sometimes has been a source of embarrassment, culminating in President George W. Bush having to duck shoes thrown at him. When I traveled the world I would occasionally feel the undercurrent of anti-Americanism, the stereotype of the “ugly American” that President Obama has asked the Muslim world to renounce as he has said we must “fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.”
During my adult lifetime I can think of only two comparable speeches as noteworthy as Obama’s: President Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” June 26, 1963 speech (ironically three days before my first marriage) in West Berlin and President Reagan’s June 12, 1987 speech at the Brandenburg Gate, proclaiming “Tear down this wall!” a challenge to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to destroy the Berlin Wall. I was in Frankfurt Germany on October 3, 1990 when Berlin was united into a single city-state and East/West German unity was achieved, the words of Kennedy and Reagan resonating in history.
Hopefully President Obama’s Cairo speech similarly will be recognized as an inspirational turning point sometime in the future. Words and leadership make a difference.