Thursday, June 4, 2009

Evan's Corner: Analyzing Obama's Speech to the Muslim World

Mere hours after Barack Obama delivered an historic speech to the Muslim world from Cairo, the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) and the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) presented a panel discussion analyzing the speech. The panelists were a diverse group, representing a wide range of organizations, but each asked a similar question: will this unquestionably brilliant speech be backed up by changes in policy?

It is hard to deny the skill and knowledge evident in the president’s speech. Will Marshall (Progressive Policy Institute) called the speech “masterful,” and Geneive Abdo (The Century Foundation) agreed it was certainly “brilliant.” The president’s use of Koranic passages, as well as his references to the damaging legacy of colonialism illustrates his understanding of the region, and the concerns of its people. Rich Eisendorf (Freedom House) noted that no American politician has been able to project such a sense of respect and understanding since Jimmy Carter. The panelists concurred that the speech raised the level of dialogue, but also that this may prove problematic if the words are not coupled with political change.

Abdo referred to the president as “evasive” when it came to laying out specific policy goals. Obama said, “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.” Abdo noted that while it is encouraging to have the president speak out against the expansion of settlements, he did not indicate what the US would do to force Israel’s hand. Radwan Masmoudi (CSID) echoed this argument, pointing out that the United States has been against expanding settlements for twenty years, but has yet to apply the necessary pressure to make settlements stop.

The panelists were skeptical of other aspects of the president’s speech as well. Obama stated he is committed to, “governments that reflect the will of the people.” However, Will Marshall argued that the United States has supported some of the more repressive governments in the Middle East, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia. There is no real indication that these relationships will change, particularly since the president chose to give his address from Cairo.

On countless subjects, the panelists agreed that the president spoke eloquently, but did not go far enough explaining how to implement political change. He talked about extremism, but did not address the American policies that foster such movements. He talked about development, but did not address lackluster trade policy between the West and the Middle East. No one argued against the power and beauty of Obama’s words. However, it is an open question whether or not those words will be backed up with political action, and these panelists aren’t holding their breath.

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