Opinion Obama's Unfinished Speech in Cairo

With his address, US President Barack Obama offered a olive branch to the Islamic world. Whether his speech will go down in history will be determined by the mullahs in Tehran and the hardliners in Israel.
Von Gabor Steingart

This much is certain: Obama gave a nice speech in Cairo on Thursday. He spoke of "mutual respect" and "mutual interests." The cycle of suspicion and discord in the Western world must end, he said.

He gave a courageous speech, stating that Islam is a power for peace, that the Koran is a call for peacefulness, and that the US president finds nothing wrong with women who wear a the hijab. He added that the US must, once and for all, stop trying to export its particular vision of democracy.

No Western leader before him had been as empathetic and obliging in an address to the world's 48 countries with majority Islamic populations. Obama offered the Muslims nothing less than reconciliation and partnership. It was a magnificent speech.

But was the speech the US president delivered grand and historically important?

The answer to that question won't be found at the University of Cairo, where he spoke to the Muslim world. Rather, it will be found in the mosques and palaces of the Arab world. And only if the rulers there take the hands that Obama has extended to them and place them on their hearts.

He offered the prospect of a Palestinian state. But will he be able to convince Israel to take that step? He called for a dialogue with Islamic youth. But can the recruiting successes of the Taliban be stopped? He called on Iran to abandon its efforts to produce a nuclear bomb. But will the ayatollahs in Tehran even listen?

The historic magnitude of a speech isn't primarily determined by what is said. What is important is what happens after, that the words have an effect.

Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC is 1963, went down in history because it triggered a civil rights movement that transformed America. It helped the country to fulfil the dream of ending American racial discrimination.

Ronald Reagan's "Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down this Wall," an address given in 1987 within view of the Brandenburg Gate -- at the time fenced-in by the Berlin Wall -- was initially deemed to be overhyped. Wishful thinking, people politely said. Typically American, more virulent critics said.

Today Reagan's speech counts as a major event because Mikhail Gorbachev met the audacious challenge -- or so it seems. The Wall fell. Reagan no longer looked like a simpleton, but a prophet of change.

Former Chancellor Willy Brandt's first speech before the German parliament in 1969 included the famous challenge, "Let's risk more democracy," and announced a new openness in Germany that would be popular among students, anti-Vietnam War agitators and other young West German baby boomers. The speech owes its renown to the effects of its words, not to the words themselves. Brandt followed up his speech with a phase of domestic reforms. He wasn't just paying lip service. He delivered.

Whether Obama will deliver is less clear than ever. In the Arab world, a number of extremists faces a small band of pragmatists. The pragmatists want to shake Washington's outstretched hand; the others would rather hack it off. Some want to negotiate, others want to build bombs. Some understand Obama's speech as a prelude to peace, the others see it as a declaration of war -- because they realize this peace won't be achieved in full accordance with the word of the Prophet Muhammad.

Obama has defined his mission but not accomplished it. The speech must now be followed up by policy proposals and everything that goes along with them -- promises, deals and threats. And one can only hope that the day never comes when human lives must be lost in order to execute those threats. The road to peace has already led, many times, to war.

Obama has delivered beautiful but unfinished words in Cairo. When the spotlight in the university auditorium goes dark, the President of the United States will still have to work hard to fulfil the potentially historic magnitude of his speech.

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