The analyses by David Brewster and Michael Brull of Obama’s Cairo speech published in newmatilda.com last week are both, to a certain extent, correct. Brewster’s commendation of Obama’s clear and unambiguous language is astute as the speech does represent a shift away from the "weasel words" and cant phrases of the neoconservatives who have dominated US policy for the last eight years.
Meanwhile Brull is certainly correct in his observation that one speech does not a foreign policy position make. It’s an obvious but little-regarded point: new US presidents do not operate in a vacuum. But while words do not change political positions, they can initiate policy processes down the road — even before the intended participants are ready or willing to start the journey.
The fact that Obama is seen as a great orator says more about the quality of political oratory in the modern world — in which every speech is washed through focus groups, expert panels and the gentle ministrations of spin doctors, then tailored to the sound bite media until it is reduced to the consistency of mashed pumpkin — than it does about the quality of Obama’s speechmaking. To listen to an Anglophone political leader who can apparently accept that his audience has minds capable of holding more than football scores and the doings of the latest celebrity slag is a revelation, to say the least. It will take a little bit of getting used to.
Brull may have grounds to castigate Obama for a simple restatement of the tired US policy line — but arguably Obama does so because he is trying to juggle different interests and to turn around the juggernaut that is US foreign policy at the same time. In terms of the Israel-Palestine question, the US has long wavered between a variety of policy positions depending on the political shade of the administration. It is thus far too early to accuse Obama of running for the standard default position of "we get it and we are working on it".
The position expressed in this speech does make it clear that pro-Israel voices in Washington still exert considerable influence, but Obama’s call for Hamas to denounce violence and act according to its role as an elected representative of Palestinian people was significant and consistent with the position expressed on democracy. Fundamentally, Obama’s point is that both sides need to stop dehumanising the other and to start identifying with each other towards a negotiated peaceful settlement. This, while not new either, was an important point to make before a Muslim audience.
Likewise, Obama can hardly be blamed for the situation in Afghanistan — which he inherited from George W Bush — and there is no way of knowing what his reaction would have been had he been president on 11 September 2001. As many have observed since well before Obama was elected, any idealism of his will be met with pressure from the many interests and constraints, both domestic and foreign, which influence US political agendas.
So what was this speech for? Or, maybe more pertinent, who was it for? There is no doubt that the speech was for Muslim elites. It is also a clear statement of US values. Talking about democracy and freedom in illiberal states is not a waste of time. In fact, these are exactly the places you should talk about them. A quiet, insistent position statement is a far more effective diplomatic tool than hectoring and helicopter gunships. Given the recent unpleasantness surrounding the imposition of what are described as "US democratic values" into some parts of the world, maybe we can cut Obama some slack here.
This speech was less about politics and more about building trust and relationships, something vitally needed in the aftermath of Bush’s presidency. Indeed, recent commentators have widely bemoaned the repeated failures of American public diplomacy in the Muslim world. If the objective of the Cairo speech was to begin to redress those failures, in this sense, we agree with Brewster that he was successful. Whether we like it or not, the speech was popular and effective for a wider audience than simply the targeted political elites. But there is much damage to be repaired and much work to be done.
Another consideration is that with this speech the Obama White House was killing two birds with one stone. Send a clear message to the Muslim world that the policy has changed — and send exactly the same message loud and clear to a Washington policy establishment mired in the failures and ideological orthodoxies of the last eight years. Policy change by high profile public comment is a time-honoured political tactic when dealing with a bureaucracy too entrenched or blinkered to respond to more subtle political signals.
Policy development, especially in international relations, is incremental, a dance at times so necessarily mannered it resembles inertia or disingenuousness. This speech was clearly an act of public diplomacy and public diplomacy is about perception. There will be an opportunity to judge Obama when the next US election comes round, a time when we will be in a better position to analyse how politically effective the speech was. For now, let’s enjoy the fact that there might be light at the end of the tunnel.
While many may have understandably criticised Obama for a speech that was "style over substance", this is one of those occasions when style — and the shift it can signal in public diplomacy — arguably is its own important kind of substance.
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