And Now for the Hard Part
Obama's speech was impressive, but its impact may not be felt for a generation.
Today's speech at Cairo University was the first major elaboration, and will prompt the first real test, of this doctrine. Obama has clearly signaled that in the coming weeks and months he will initiate serious talks with the leaders of Iran, Syria, and other predominantly Muslim nations in order to make headway toward solving a host of urgent international problems. These talks will not be politically sustainable—they'll be rejected in many quarters as illegitimate—unless Muslims' popular view of America and Americans' popular view of Islam are demystified, defanged, and humanized.
This change in attitude may only nudge the countries a bit closer to one another's positions. As Obama said at the Summit of the Americas, it may make them more likely to cooperate only "at the margins." But that degree of prodding may be enough.
Then again, it may not be.
Obama made several bold statements today in Cairo. He rejected the legitimacy of Israeli settlements but also denounced Holocaust deniers and plainly said the Palestinians would have to accept Israel's existence and focus on building their own society. And he said that both sides of the conflict know what they have to do. "Privately," he said, "many Muslims recognize that Israel will not go away" just as "many Israelis recognize the need for a Palestinian state." And so "it is time for us to act on what everyone knows to be true."
The problem is that not everyone does know these things to be true—and among the deluded are factions with considerable power and influence in Israel, the Palestinian territories, and elsewhere. It may be self-evident that, as he put it, "fault lines must be closed among Muslims as well, as the divisions between Sunni and Shia have led to tragic violence, particularly in Iraq." But how does he, or anyone, propose that the Sunni and Shiite—whose enmity dates back centuries—suddenly close ranks and make peace? A few times in his speech, Obama said that many of these conflicts arise because people "remain trapped in the past."
The title of Obama's speech was "A New Beginning." But new beginnings are among the hardest ventures for people to undertake. We are all creatures of our cultures, our terrains, our histories. We are all "trapped in the past"; the past, after all, is the only experience we know. To shove off this safe rock requires some incentive, some assurance that however terrible life might be now, this new course will be better—or at least won't be worse.
That's the challenge of the diplomacy that lies ahead—to devise these incentives and assurances, to make the mutual interests sufficiently palpable and compelling that they're translated into cooperative policies. It may be that the tensions are too intractable to smooth over just now; it may be that the extremists and rejectionists hold too much sway in their respective lands to be overwhelmed by the force of sweet reason. It may take a generation for Obama's vision to take hold.
He probably realizes this. It may be why he chose to deliver the speech on a college campus. If his ideas don't gain traction with today's political elites, maybe one of tomorrow's will remember the spectacle of an American president named Barack Hussein Obama (when he pronounced his name this morning, the crowd cheered), who seemed familiar with Islam's historic contributions and who said "Peace be upon him" after uttering the name of the prophet (more cheers)—a president, in short, who didn't seem so otherworldly or hostile and who, having been elected by a majority of Americans, implied by his very existence that maybe the United States isn't so otherworldly or hostile either.
This breakthrough may take a while. But whenever it comes about, if it ever does, today's speech may be looked upon as the spark that set it in motion.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Barack Obama by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images.