The significance of President Barack Obama's speech in Cairo, Egypt, this morning—whether it marks a turning point in American foreign policy or just a string of lofty sentiments—will depend on what happens next, on what his administration does in the world, and on what other nations do in response.
And yet, if Obama does have an impact—if substantive progress is made in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, in luring Iran away from nuclear weapons, in isolating and defeating jihadist terrorists, in boosting the political fortunes of moderate Muslims—this speech will have had something to do with it. It may well be seen as a pivotal event, the necessary prelude to real change.
On its face, Obama's address was about the ancient values and principles that the United States and Islam share. But underlying this idea was a plea to move beyond the labels and stereotypes of religions and ideologies—to push them into the background, as facts that define some aspects of ourselves but that don't determine our actions or attitudes—so that we can deal with one another on the basis, as he put it, of "mutual interest and mutual respect."
In other words, this speech, like many of Obama's speeches on foreign affairs, was a plea for a return to realism.
Obama used similar language when speaking with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the G20 talks last April. "What I believe we began today," he said at a joint press conference afterward, "is a very constructive dialogue that allows us to work on issues of mutual interest." The two sides had differences, and Obama didn't paper over them; in fact, he raised some of them explicitly and at some length. But he said he wouldn't let them get in the way of issues—such as terrorism, nuclear proliferation, regional conflict, and international trade—in which the two nations had shared and vital interests.
This marked a welcome contrast to George W. Bush's tendency to demand that disputes be settled before common interests were pursued—a self-defeating approach, given that in many parts of the world the United States no longer had the leverage to impose its will so cavalierly.
Obama could make this point at the G20 talks without rousing much ire at home. The Cold War has long been over; it wasn't remotely shocking to see American and Russian presidents treating each other as peers in the community of nations.
However, for an American president and the leader of a Muslim nation, or at least certain Muslim nations, to carry on diplomatic relations—that would be quite alarming, both to many Americans and to many Muslims. One point of Obama's speech this morning was to switch off the alarm so that when this sort of diplomacy gets under way in full force, it won't seem so abnormal or set off huge waves of protest.
Polls show that many Americans see Islam and terrorism as practically synonymous. The same is true in the Muslim world for America and colonialism. Obama's principal aim was to shatter or at least begin to soften this perception.
AP Video: Obama Speaks in Egypt
Obama has spoken about the importance of perceptions on other occasions as well. At a press conference toward the end of the Summit of the Americas in April, he explained why the act of talking and listening to other countries might make a difference. It won't transform international politics, he acknowledged. "Countries are going to have interests," he said; sometimes their interests will diverge from ours, and that's not going to change. However, he continued, "at the margins," countries will be "more likely to want to cooperate than not cooperate." And if it turns out their resistance to U.S. policies is "based on old perceptions or ideological dogmas," he said, then maybe "we can actually solve a problem." There will still be "very tough negotiations on a whole host of issues," Obama went on. "That's not going to change because I'm popular … or leaders think that I've been respectful toward then. On the other hand, by having established those better relations, it means … there's more confidence that working with the United States is beneficial, and they are going to try to do more than they might otherwise have done."
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.