Without question, this was the first serious foreign policy speech Obama has made as president. In giving it, he broke a number of taboos and slid over several potential minefields, reaffirming America’s commitment to Israel as well as to Palestinian statehood in front of an Egyptian audience, and going out of his way to make statements about democracy, womens’ rights, and religious freedom. If the speech were the dawn of a new age of public diplomacy then I’m all in favor.
Two things worried me about it, however. For my taste, there was too much “on the one hand, on the other hand” about the language, including ( I’m agreeing with Meghan here ) on women. He didn’t have to start that particular riff by declaring that “there is debate about this issue,” as if the repression of some very fundamental rights of half the human race were somehow “debatable.” And he could have spared us the comment about the “struggle for womens’ equality’ in America,” as if we were all in this together, us and the regimes who stone women for adultery. He did a similar thing on religious freedom, noting that there are some legal difficulties for Muslim charities in America, as if that problem was somehow comparable to the absolute ban on Christian practice in Saudi Arabia. I could go on. In fact, if you look carefully at the different sections of the speech you’ll see that he did this kind of thing on every issue.
I assume this equivocation was a deliberate rhetorical tactic, designed to soften the message. And under normal circumstances, I’d be bothered. But in this case, it hardly matters, since almost no one in Cairo, or anyone almost anywhere in the world, is going to remember the details of what Obama said anyway. The importance of this speech was in the imagery, in the impression of a new opening, in the hint of new kinds of partnership to come, in the fact that it was made in downtown Cairo, at a real Egyptian university and not at some diplomatic conference center. Which gets me to the other thing that bothers me: To date, the Obama administration has shown a striking lack of interest in what we used to call “democracy promotion” such as courses for judges and journalists,or radio debates about human rights-mundane programs which we used to be rather good at designing and lately seem not to be. Other than a few references to student exchanges and the like, I didn’t hear anything that made it sound as if the Obama administration has thought a lot about how to follow up on this speech, and that worries me. “Dialogue” is all very well, as long as the president doesn’t believe that “dialogue,” by itself, will fix anything at all (and sometimes I worry that he does). As an opening shot, this was a good one. What’s next?