A Peace Mission Obama's Offer to the Islamic World
With his speech in Cairo, the new US president sought to awaken a global community that has been paralyzed by conflict. He offered a combination of powerful idealism and realism -- but at some point talk won't be enough. He'll have to act.
Speechwriter Ben Rhodes looked tired as he stood, unshaven, in a hotel lobby in the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh last Wednesday. The big speech was less than 24 hours away, and the manuscript was already on his boss's desk. Now the waiting had begun. His boss, a skillful speaker himself, is a stern taskmaster. He has written two New York Times bestsellers, and it is partly due to his skillful use of words that he became a millionaire and then the president of the United States. Barack Obama brought Rhodes to the White House with him when he took office.
The basic structure of the speech had been established for some time, said Rhodes. He and the president had discussed the Cairo appearance at length, and Obama had asked for a candid and bold speech. Now if only the president weren't so consistently critical. Rhodes says Obama "edited it very heavily" over the past week.
The result -- the speech Obama gave at Cairo University last Thursday -- was anything if not impressive. Sixty million people watched, read or listened to the speech on the radio, on television, on the Internet or via text message. The message they heard was one of reconciliation, peace and tolerance -- and change.
The team of senior White House officials accompanying the president -- Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, top advisor David Axelrod, National Security Advisor James Jones and speechwriter Rhodes -- nodded to each other in approval, from their comfortable seats in a VIP box in the theater-like auditorium.
The world Obama envisioned in Cairo is far more generous and luminous than that of his predecessor, George W. Bush. It is a world populated by relatives and friends, by partners and, of course, by adversaries and enemies -- who, nevertheless, have the option of changing their status.
For Obama, the world does not consist of good and evil, but of nations with varying interests, which he hopes to bring together in dialogue. Describing the foreign policy of the United States, a superpower that has become more modest with Obama at the helm, he said: "We now seek a broader engagement."
The Obama doctrine signifies opportunities and challenges for all. Everyone, the president said, must contribute to solving the today's problems, especially the Middle East conflict, a core conflict of the 21st century.
In Cairo, the president outlined the individual contributions he envisioned so that peace could finally be brought to the troubled world of the Middle East:
- The Israelis, he said, must stop their settlement policy in the West Bank and accept an independent Palestinian state. "America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity and a state of their own," he promised.
- Hamas and Islamic Jihad fighters must stop denying the Holocaust and renounce violence. "Violence is a dead end," he said.
- The Iranians must commit themselves to the peaceful use of nuclear power.
- Each side -- including the Muslims -- must abandon the stereotypes to which it has become accustomed. America, he said, "is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire," but a nation born of many cultures.
- America, Obama promised, will withdraw from Iraq and, in due course, from Afghanistan. Guantanamo will be closed, as promised, and the days of democracy being forced on others are over, he said. "No system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other," he said.
Obama's world consists of three partial worlds that must cooperate to turn the attractive vision he painted in Cairo into reality. The first is Europe, which Obama sees as a continent of the past and a community of values and, most of all, remembrances, as the European stations of his trip have documented. He visited the former Buchenwald concentration camp, the Frauenkirche (Church of our Lady) in Dresden, destroyed by British bombs during the war and now rebuilt, with the help of the British and Americans, and Normandy, where American soldiers once landed to liberate Germany from Hitler. A textbook journey to some of the more representative junctions in recent European history couldn't have been designed more effectively.
Nevertheless, Germany and Chancellor Angela Merkel took up little space on Obama's agenda. He visited Dresden and not Berlin, faced an emptied city instead of enthusiastic crowds and spoke only briefly with the chancellor. Of course, Obama sought to downplay any suspicions that there are limits to his admiration for Merkel. Reported tensions between the two leaders are "wild speculation," he informed the press. "So stop it, all of you," he said, jokingly.
Obama is a US president who apparent has no high-flying expectations of Europeans. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, of all people, is currently serving as the Americans' star witness. Sarkozy recently asked: "Does Europe want peace or does it want to be left in peace?"
Officials in Washington think they know the answer.
The Obama administration is also convinced that the Europeans' aim is to do nothing but negotiate -- with countries like North Korea, Iran and Russia -- and that, in the bitter end, when all acts of good will remain unsuccessful and the final notes of protest have been exchanged, they will ultimately abandon the Americans.
For Obama, the world of the future lies in Asia, a place where former President George W. Bush has left him a better legacy. Bush, ostracized elsewhere for going it alone, showed his cooperative side in that part of the world.
Bush expanded business and contacts with China. He signed a nuclear treaty with India, thereby integrating the country into the circle of nuclear powers. The Indian-American alliance also serves as a form of reinsurance, should China's leadership decide one day to switch from an overwhelmingly friendly to a more aggressive posture. Japan, as it seeks to strengthen its military capability, and is being welcomed as a counterweight to China, albeit a relatively weak one.
Obama sees the world of the dangerous present in the Middle East, a region criss-crossed with fuses. At the end of each fuse lies an explosive of unheard-of proportions. The identities of the chief detonators vary, from Hezbollah to Hamas to al-Qaida, but they can also be found in Iran and Israel.
This is why Obama has already visited Saudi Arabia, Egypt and, previously, Turkey. He wants to determine whether a coalition can be forged in the Middle East.
A self-confident and often loud-mouthed Iran is useful for Obama. The fears of the countries bordering Iran, a potential Shiite nuclear and major power, could help to form the basis of an anti-Iran coalition. Last Wednesday, Obama met with Saudi Arabian King Abdullah for hours in an effort to mount a Middle East alliance. Part of its purpose would be to help him transform the images of a more attractive world he painted in his Cairo speech into reality.
- Part 1: Obama's Offer to the Islamic World
- Part 2: Israeli Advisor: 'Obama's Approach Could Do Irreparable Damage to the World'