What's happening at the
Friday 18 Aug 2017 | 05:39 | SYDNEY
Friday 18 Aug 2017 | 05:39 | SYDNEY

Osama, Obama – it's all a big drama



5 June 2009 14:01

So far the most incisive analysis of Obama’s Cairo address to the Muslim world was this one from Pakistan, reported in The Guardian:

"I don't know much," said Muhammad Irshad, a young cobbler. "But at least he's better than Bush."

The second best analysis was contained in the same story, but only because it rhymed:

"Osama, Obama – what's the difference?" he said, reaching for his cigarettes. "It's all a big drama."

Young Muhammad wins, however, because he recognises an important point. Obama’s speech is undoubtedly winning both a lot more kudos and lot more condemnation than it deserves simply because Obama is not Bush. 

That said, some things stood out for me:

  • Addressing the Palestinians, Obama said, ‘Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed’. I have never heard an American President use the term that the Palestinians use for describing violence against Israel – ‘resistance’. In the same breath, he endorsed the Palestinian narrative, while condemning its violent manifestations, on both moral and practical grounds.
  • The line ‘The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued settlements’ wedges Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu between those of his coalition partners that have strong ties to the settlement movement and the broader Israeli public who will be uncomfortable with tensions in Israel’s key strategic relationship. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Obama is heading for Buchenwald (as he noted in his speech), rather than Jerusalem after he leaves Egypt.
  • On democracy, it is still not clear that Obama isn’t going to throw the democracy promotion baby out with the Bush policy bathwater. His line that America would ‘welcome all elected, peaceful governments’, combined with a warning that ‘there are some who advocate for democracy only when they are out of power’, was spookily reminiscent of this famous speech, which presaged yet another decade of American do-nothing on democracy in the Middle East.
  • As Dan Levy observes, Obama declined to follow Bush’s lead and lump all 31 flavours of Islamist movement into one big extremist sundae. The Muslim Brotherhood (some of whose members of parliament were invited to the speech) seemed cautiously grateful.

Finally, as everyone is already saying, people are now looking for the policy that will flow from the polished rhetoric. It really is anyone’s guess how this is playing in different parts of the Muslim world or how long any honeymoon might last. It is true that Obama has raised expectation that would be dangerous to disappoint, but you figure he understands that. 

Moreover, I would not underestimate how positive an impact it has had or how long that impact might continue to be felt. I remember watching the film Malcolm X at the Cairo film festival and the crowd breaking into spontaneous and rowdy applause when, in one part of the movie, Denzel Washington recited a verse of the Quran. People like it when you say nice things about them or show some respect. Go figure.

You may also be interested in...