Having watched Obama’s speech in Cairo and having now read it carefully several times, I wonder if he is not running for president of the world.
During the U.S. presidential election campaign, Barack Obama was criticized by folks like Sarah Palin because he had overwhelming support overseas. From the nativist perspective, if the Brits and the frogs like you, let alone the Egyptians and Turks and Iranians, then any self-respecting Amurrican should realize that this fellow is not one of us. He probably pals around with terrorists. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
But how is he seen by the entrenched power structures in the Middle East?
The best way to read the text, it seems to me, is as a campaign speech. He identified a set of principles or objectives that most (though by no means all) of his listeners could identify with. This establishes the base. Like any good campaigner, he stayed out of the engine room. Time enough for the nitty-gritty later. Just convince them that you know what you are talking about and that your sympathies tend to align with theirs. Don’t shy away from straight talk and controversial topics. They will appreciate courage, especially if you spread it around evenly.
To do this, he invented a new vocabulary that is comprehensible to the 1.5 billion or so Muslims in the world but inoffensive to the other 5 billion. As detailed in the Washington Post article in the link above (my headline, not theirs), he found ways to speak directly (and in words that will translate perfectly) to an audience that has become accustomed to kindergarten homilies from senior U.S. officials. Text messages in multiple languages were available as he started speaking.
As Americans have learned to expect – and as the rest of the world is coming to realize – Obama has perfect political pitch. His choice of words, with possibly one or two exceptions, was impeccable. He was typically earnest, well informed, practical yet idealistic, and oriented toward pragmatic solutions rather than dwelling on past grievances. By acknowledging the shortcomings of his own country, he increased the effectiveness of his appeal for change in others.
This speech was crafted to speak directly and candidly to people in many different countries, while casually ignoring their rulers. He was dismissive of elections as true or unique measures of democracy, which had to resonate in a country like Egypt, with a doughy zombie of a leader who wins his elections by more than 90% and who is preparing to turn over his 28-year pharoh-ship to his son. This is reminiscent of the nearly 30-year reign of Syria’s Hafez al Asad who hurriedly bequeathed his crown to his younger son Bashar when his elder son, the unacknowledged crown prince, died in an accident. These monarchies masquerading as republics have only “stability,” i.e. a rigid status quo, to offer. And if pressured, their only defense is to threaten to self destruct. They are the antithesis of change we can believe in.
But if you are not going to invade them or lecture them publicly about democracy or set the CIA to subverting them, what do you do? If you are Barack Obama, you might ask those nations to look at you and start thinking about whether they can’t do better than what they’ve got.
This drives the entrenched power structures in the region absolutely berserk. They loved George W. Bush. He was the kind of enemy you could depend on. And outside of his own narrow political base in the United States, he had little appeal anywhere in the world.
Obama is different. He kills you with kindness and empathy. He lays out the elements of even the most contentious political problem in such calm, measured tones, without a hint of hostility or anger, that it is hard to find an angle of attack. Iran’s Leader, Ayatollah Khamene`i, spoke today on the commemoration of the death of Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic. This is an annual occasion for an orgy of anti-American rhetoric. Today he fulminated at U.S. policies – mostly from the Bush era. But when he came to the present, he could only sniff that you can’t change the reality “through words, speeches, and slogans.” But this comes at a moment when the Iranian presidential election, for the first time, has made foreign policy and relations with the United States a major issue.
Obama is in the process of depriving the Middle East of an enemy, which some wags have said is the worst thing one country can do to another. This is being denounced by the hard right in this country as appeasement, and by the hard left as nothing but Bush-lite. Policy wonks will claim that it isn’t offering a specific plan, and political zealots in the Middle East and elsewhere will say it is naïve (because it downplays their own particular obsessions) or futile (since it suggests that they and their foes might have to forsake the comfort of their mutual intolerance).
But the existing power structures – which govern badly, with little regard to the welfare of their own people, and without popular approval – should be terrified.
Obama is not maneuvering to overthrow them. They know what to do about that. He is instead offering an alternative model of governance in a context of cooperation. Although he will never run for office in their countries, they may find that in order to survive they are nevertheless forced to run against him. As we know, that can be a formidable challenge, and it is something they have never had to face.
5 years ago
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