A Critique of President Obama’s Speech in Cairo

The speech by President Obama in Cairo, Egypt, on the 4th of June billed as, “An Address to the Muslim World” is indeed a historic. It appears that the speech has been largely well received by his intended audience.

There are many critics of the speech. As usual the rightwing critics in the US lament that he should not have accepted any mistakes in the past US policies. Most of the thoughtful criticism from the Muslims, his intended audience is about some of the things he said, but mostly what he did not say or did not say with more emphasis.

That includes me as well. While talking of violence by Palestinians, I wish he would have also commented on much worse violence inflicted on the Palestinians by Israelis, as is obvious by the death toll in many of the Israeli military operations. The toll of violence in Gaza last January was approximately1300 Palestinian killed, mostly civilians, to about 6 Israeli soldiers. How can one ignore it? Since it was billed as an address to the Muslim world and not only to the Arabs, I wish he would have also covered the conflicts in other parts of the world where Muslims are being persecuted.

Having said that, critics should keep in mind that President Obama has been in office for barely five months; he has inherited from his predecessor two wars, and economy that was teetering on the precipice of depression. Deregulation by the US governments starting in 1980, become completely irresponsible in the last administration. It encouraged and lauded unbridled greed on the Wall Street that left the American economy in shambles with the fear of possible depression, rippling through the world markets.

One should keep in mind that President Obama is a president of a Democratic Republic and not a dictator with unlimited powers. American President is perceived to be the most powerful man in the world, but his power in the US is circumscribed and checked by the other two branches of the government. He can be powerful domestically only if he can convince American electorate that his policies are in their self interest.

There is a difference in being an idealistic critic and an idealistic politician or even a statesman. As President Lincoln once equated the navigation of the ship of State to navigation through the Mississippi River; by necessity one has to follow the path of the river. Even though one may be travelling south, but when the river meanders to the north, one has to go along that short distance. It takes time and sustained effort by a visionary leader to gradually institute new policies while educating and carrying the people along. It is not easy to challenge wrong policies and the propaganda of decades. Those idealistic politicians who get too far ahead and do not take appropriate time to educate the people are overwhelmed by the entrenched opposition and court failure. The good policies and noble intents find a place on the dust heap of history.

It is unrealistic to expect that in a fifty five minutes speech President Obama could have covered all the nuances and details of the accumulated problems of many decades. As he acknowledged, “I do so recognizing that change cannot happen overnight. No single speech can eradicate years of mistrust, nor can I answer in the time that I have all the complex questions that brought us to this point.” He added, “Of course, recognizing our common humanity is only the beginning of our task. Words alone cannot meet the needs of our people. These needs will be met only if we act boldly in the years ahead; and if we understand that the challenges we face are shared, and our failure to meet them will hurt us all. “

Of course if he does not follow up with concrete policies, these lofty words and ideas, the critics would have been proven right, but one needs to give him some time.

Generally speaking, it appears from the myriad polls over the years that about 25 to 30 percent Americans, (as voters in most other countries) belong to “my country right or wrong” group. They abhor the idea of acknowledging any mistakes. Mr. Bush’s intransigence was mistaken for strength. Their idea of patriotism is rooted in the supremacy of their religion and blind nationalism. They are adept at ignoring reality and confuse their interest with the universal morality.

Another 20 to 30 percent understand universal morality and do think of right and wrong in terms of “Do unto others, what one wants for him-self”. The struggle is to convince the 40 percent or so apathetic voters who do not follow the news of the international events closely. They are essentially concerned with the pocket book issues. They tend to follow the leader who can convincingly promise a better economy and hopefully deliver it.

One should keep these political realities in mind and that President Obama has inherited the most ominous problems from his predecessor, an economy that was in a free fall from October 2008 to March 2009, two wars spiraling towards endless quagmires and rotting infrastructure. He has not only made bold efforts to tackle them, it is remarkable that against the conventional wisdom that the president should not tackle more than one or two problems at a time, he considered the dialogue with the Muslim world and tackling the Palestine-Israel problem of such paramount importance that he made such a bold speech and has raised expectations.

Critics who find no difference between President George W Bush’s rhetoric and President Obama’s speech have a very short memory. President Bush appointed rightwing ideologues and known enemies of Islam, such as Elliot Abrams, Daniel Pipes and general Boykin to name just a few, to important positions and their rhetoric were incendiary. President Obama has shown by his action and many speeches that he does not skirt contentious issues, but speaks clearly and cogently to make people understand his thoughts and actions.

Thoughtful criticism of leaders is very important. That is how the leaders learn and try to meet the legitimate needs and aspirations of the people, but one should temper it with an understanding of the leader’s character and consideration of the facts on the ground.