ChrisWeigant.com

Please support ChrisWeigant.com this holiday season!

Obama Should Give Second Cairo Speech

[ Posted Monday, February 28th, 2011 – 17:58 PST ]

President Barack Hussein Obama, on June 4, 2009, gave a speech in Cairo, Egypt. This speech was widely praised both in America and abroad when Obama delivered it, as being both an overture to the Muslim world and a redefinition of some key American policies in the region (or, at the very least, a respectful explanation of continuing policies).

That was then, this is now. Things, to put it mildly, have changed a bit. President Obama should realize the opportunity this presents, and should soon give a sequel to his first Cairo speech, because the situation on the ground is moving so rapidly in the entire North African and Middle Eastern arena. It will be tough for Obama to thread the needle on what the emerging American policy is towards the uprisings spontaneously erupting in so many different countries (with so many different political situations) -- because America has always dealt with the region's various types of government on a case-by-case basis, according to our national interests (which can be largely summed up as: "oil"). Also because the current situation is so fluid. But just because it will be a hard speech to write doesn't mean Obama shouldn't make the effort, as soon as is humanly possible.

Of course, the president is not likely to travel to Cairo at this point, since the security situation there is still in flux as well. But Obama does not need to be physically present in Egypt to capitalize on the fact that his initial speech was delivered from Cairo University. Obama could give the speech from the Oval Office or a podium in the West Wing, in today's interconnected world, with the same results as if he were addressing Egyptian students in person. As long as he made it clear in his opening remarks that he was again speaking directly to Egypt's youth -- and to the youth of the entire region -- it would be likely received with the same weight.

Obama, in his initial Cairo speech in 2009, had some very inclusive things to say about America and Islam in general, and then went on to address a number of pressing regional issues: violent extremism and Al Qaeda, our presence in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Israeli-Palestinian issue, nuclear weapons and Iran, religious freedom both in the Muslim world and in the West, women's rights and human rights, and economic development and stability.

But he also addressed the question of democracy in the region. Here is all of what he had to say (the full transcript is available at the official White House site) on the subject:

I know there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years, and much of this controversy is connected to the war in Iraq. So let me be clear: No system of government can or should be imposed by one nation by any other.

That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people. Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere.

Now, there is no straight line to realize this promise. But this much is clear: governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure. Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments -- provided they govern with respect for all their people.

This last point is important because there are some who advocate for democracy only when they're out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others. So no matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who would hold power: You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.

Now, obviously, events have changed the situation on the ground dramatically since Obama gave this speech over a year and a half ago. In the last two months, two governments have fallen -- including Egypt's, where Obama gave his speech -- and many more are in danger of falling (to some degree or another). Libya is currently in the midst of what can only be termed a civil war, as a result of the wave of "people power" spreading throughout the region. Leaders even of countries that have not yet had mass demonstrations are scrambling to make political reforms happen as fast as they possibly can, in the hopes of keeping their populace happy enough that these leaders may remain in power.

Which is why it would be a good time for Obama to update his earlier speech. Don't get me wrong, though -- by suggesting this, I am not agreeing with the various Obama critics who have been Monday-morning-quarterbacking every move Obama has so far made in response to the crises we've seen so far. It is easy for people -- no matter what their specific complaint may be -- to sit in a television studio and expound about what Obama should or should not be doing. Such nitpicking is easy for them, because such people aren't responsible for American diplomats' lives in these countries, nor are they privy to what is being said and done behind the scenes. So I'm in no way agreeing with people who come up with fantasies such as declaring a "no-tank zone" in Libya -- without any clue what that would entail for the United States military. Or those that insist that "we should have seen this coming" -- without specifying how, exactly, a spontaneous outburst of another country's population could be foretold by the C.I.A. or any other American intelligence-gathering agency.

On the whole, the Obama administration has been doing a pretty good job so far of reacting to the crises as they have happened. Where America has a fair degree of leverage, sometimes all it takes is a phone call to a king or a military leader to stop the violence from erupting in the streets. But not every country with people protesting on these streets is Egypt, or Bahrain. In some of these countries we have very little leverage -- or even influence -- at all. In Libya, we had virtually none, which is one reason why there was no check on the violent reaction by the government or the military.

But just because we don't have every dictator's number (or every country's military) on speed-dial doesn't mean that Obama couldn't attempt to bridge the gap between those who call for unrealistic levels of American involvement and those who are merely suggesting that Obama show some moral support for the people in the streets.

When the Egyptian protests were just getting started, Saudi Arabia reportedly warned Obama to back President Mubarak to the hilt, because they were afraid of exactly what has now happened -- with the revolutionary victory in Egypt, many other countries in the region are saying, in essence: "It's our turn now!" While it is easy to say the Saudi monarchs were only looking out for their own best interests, there is an important point to be made in all the democratic jubilation we now see. When should America decide that the people on the streets are right, and that the leader we've been backing (to one degree or another) must go? This is a very tricky tightrope to walk -- because America can't simply throw our lot in with any group who is able to raise a crowd in any country in the world. There's a reason for this caution, and it is that sooner or later we're going to throw our lot in with a group that does not succeed -- and this will have diplomatic repercussions both within that country (when we have to deal with governments who succeed in quelling uprisings) and in other countries as well.

A moral case can be made that we shouldn't deal with any government that brutally puts down uprisings. But this is naive, at best, and ignores both reality and recent history. Tiananmen Square didn't stop us from awarding China "most-favored nation" trading rights (although there were plenty who argued it indeed should have stopped us). We can't simply ignore Iran and hope they'll go away. Actually, we could -- since that's our basic attitude towards Castro's Cuba. Even during such famous "people power" revolutions in the past, American presidents (from both parties) were extremely cautious in throwing our support behind the people in the street -- sometimes taking months and months to recognize the new governments (or even offer our support to the uprising), even when it was in our interests to do so. This is historic fact, which should be considered when judging Obama's actions of late. There is a reason to be cautious when dealing with a revolutionary mob, and that reason is that sometimes revolutions don't work out for the best, for all concerned.

But, even having said all of that, Obama has an opportunity here to address the bigger picture. Both the president and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have been insisting that they have been consistent in what they've been saying about the various protest movements in the region: that they condemn all violence by any party, especially on unarmed civilians; that they support democratic rights such as free and fair elections; and that they urge leaders across the region to reform their political system to address the peoples' cries for change. These should be the core themes of a "second Cairo speech" by Obama, where he builds and expands on what he said about democracy in his first speech. By avoiding specifics, Obama will likely disappoint many in the American political sphere (the folks mentioned previously calling on Obama to do this, that, or the other), but by sticking to a few core beliefs which America universally supports he would go a long way towards sending a message to the people in the region about where America's priorities truly lie. Even this may disappoint many -- especially those currently dying on the streets -- because they would much prefer a more robust response (perhaps even an American military response). But Obama cannot promise, for example, that every street protest in the world will take place under an American military umbrella -- nor should he, because it is simply not realistic (or wise) to even contemplate saying any such thing.

As I said, writing such a speech presents many difficulties. Obama would, by giving such a speech directed to "the people of Cairo, and of the entire region," run the risk of disappointing those in the region and here at home who are fervently wishing America would "do something" in the midst of these crises. Obama would need to craft a speech which would speak to the people on the streets, to monarchs in countries friendly to us, to leaders in countries in which we have little (or no) real influence, and to our outright enemies. Obama has the chance to lay out some broad principles which we support, while at the same time reiterating the fact that each country's people must decide for themselves what is right for their country. America cannot -- and should not -- attempt to dictate to any country what form of government it has, but this does not preclude us from affirming some basic principles which we feel are universal.

President Obama needs to consider giving such an address, and spelling out what he stands for -- and, by extension. what the United States of America stands for -- in North Africa, the Middle East, and beyond. While such a speech would be all but guaranteed to disappoint many looking for concrete promises of American action, it would go a long way towards defining what our country's new relationship with the region will be in the near future, and what universal principles we stand for. It would show leadership to both an American audience and to a worldwide audience. People in America need to hear this type of leadership, and the people in the region who are risking everything -- including their lives -- to protest tyranny absolutely deserve to hear from Obama at this point. Obama, in his first speech (while talking about economic progress) said: "human progress cannot be denied." While true, it also seems to follow that human political progress cannot be ignored by President Obama, either. Instead, the progress already made (and the progress people are currently risking their lives to make) should be formally addressed. As soon as possible.

 

Cross-posted at The Huffington Post

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant

 

-- Chris Weigant

 

15 Comments on “Obama Should Give Second Cairo Speech”

  1. [1] 
    dsws wrote:

    I don't think he needs to hurry. This is going to be playing out for quite a while, and his big Cairo Speech II should be fairly late in the process so that people aren't left looking at all that has remained yet-to-come in the weeks and months afterward.

  2. [2] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Chris,

    I recently revisited Obama's Cairo speech. It really seems like a different speech today.

    As to when he should deliver the second 'Cairo' speech, whether from the White House or elsewhere, I think he needs to set the record straight on a few fundamental issues first, if only to increase his credibility, in particular, and that of the US, in general, on the Arab street.

    First up ... the recent US veto over the latest UN resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity as being illegal. Now, while I understand some of the dynamics that compelled both the Palestinian leadership to press forward with a resolution they knew was going nowhere and the US to veto it, the people in Egypt and throughout the Arab world may not be so accommodating.

    President Obama will probably need to do more than a little explaining about why the US was odd man out at the UN Security Council on this issue.

    Beyond that, he'll need to wax lyrical, at some great length, about why the US has been so inclined to support the very regimes that are now being ousted and threatened throughout the region for so long, up to and including when these Arab street protests began to take shape.

    It has pained me to hear the comments of many of the pro-democracy protesters speak of such little faith in America standing up for its ideals when the pan hits the fire, so to speak.

    I agree that this wave of change sweeping across North Africa, the Middle East and even the Gulf states presents an unprecedented opportunity to bring to life many of the themes Obama talked about in his 'first' Cairo speech. But, it seems to me that he has a lot of groundwork to lay before he gives another address to the youth of the Arab world.

    That's a good thing, too ... because that speech will take a good deal of time and effort to pen.

  3. [3] 
    Osborne Ink wrote:

    This perfectly encapsulates the Obama doctrine:

    You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.

    That's the narrative thread of health care, finance reform, etc.

  4. [4] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    OK, before I get started, I have FINALLY caught up a bit on old comment threads, so if you commented in the past week, go check out my responses. Just a public service announcement before I get to these comments, as it were.

    dsws -

    You may be right. My timing, versus Obama's timing, has always seemed to be a bit more pressing, on any number of issues. Later, looking back, I have been forced to admit (more than once!) that Obama was right to hold back and I was wrong to push the issue prematurely. This may be another case of that, I fully admit. But would you agree that "Cairo II" (aside: Man, I wish I had thought of that moniker...) would, eventually, be a good idea?

    Liz -

    The US veto of the UN settlement resolution was fully expected by all. Of course, the US (the Obama administration currently, but this is longstanding US policy) is going to back Israel in the Security Council, but they did so stating that we didn't approve of the settlements, but thought that the UN was the wrong venue. Weasel language, to be sure, but it goes back quite a ways in US foreign policy, you have to admit.

    I doubt Obama will wax lyrical on the past, as he said in his previous speech (while -- for the first time EVER -- admitting what the CIA did in Iran in the 1950s):

    I know there are many -- Muslim and non-Muslim -- who question whether we can forge this new beginning. Some are eager to stoke the flames of division, and to stand in the way of progress. Some suggest that it isn't worth the effort -- that we are fated to disagree, and civilizations are doomed to clash. Many more are simply skeptical that real change can occur. There's so much fear, so much mistrust that has built up over the years. But if we choose to be bound by the past, we will never move forward. And I want to particularly say this to young people of every faith, in every country -- you, more than anyone, have the ability to reimagine the world, to remake this world.

    Obama returned to this theme again and again -- we cannot be trapped by the past. So I would look for more talk about the future than the past in a Cairo II speech, personally.

    Osborne -

    Excellent "big picture" point.

    -CW

  5. [5] 
    Michale wrote:

    http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/nilegardiner/100077875/do-tyrants-fear-america-anymore-president-obama%E2%80%99s-timid-foreign-policy-is-an-embarrassment-for-a-global-superpower/

    That says it all about where Obama is taking this country..

    And it is not a very good place for the US of A...

    Liz,

    the people in Egypt and throughout the Arab world may not be so accommodating.

    If the people in Egypt and throughout the Arab world were not so accommodating with terrorism and terrorists, there wouldn't BE any issue between Israel and the Arab world..

    There are 8 to 10 BILLION Muslims on the planet. Of those (let's call it 10 Billion for ease) 10 Billion, approx 10,000 are radical terrorists..

    So, it's fair to say that something like .01% of Muslims are terrorists...

    Now, I ask you.. How the HELL can a Muslim terrorist organization even EXIST if 99.99% of Muslims are against the terrorist organization??

    The fact is, it couldn't...

    Muslims hold the key to the issues of the Middle East... As long as terrorism is accepted and acceptable against Israel, then Israel will always have the moral, ethical and legal high ground in everything they do up to, but not including, terrorism itself..

    CW

    You may be right. My timing, versus Obama's timing, has always seemed to be a bit more pressing, on any number of issues. Later, looking back, I have been forced to admit (more than once!) that Obama was right to hold back and I was wrong to push the issue prematurely. This may be another case of that, I fully admit. But would you agree that "Cairo II" (aside: Man, I wish I had thought of that moniker...) would, eventually, be a good idea?

    I think Obama has groveled enough and prostrated the US enough for one presidency.

    All Obama does is strengthen our enemies at the expense of US power and prestige.

    Say what you want about the US under George Bush, but no where, no how did you have countries like Iran and NK and Russia ignore and dismiss the US as they have under Obama...

    Michale.....

  6. [6] 
    dsws wrote:

    Yes, I agree that Cairo II is a good idea.

  7. [7] 
    Michale wrote:

    Liz,

    If the people in Egypt and throughout the Arab world were not so accommodating with terrorism and terrorists, there wouldn't BE any issue between Israel and the Arab world..

    That is not to say that I think you agree with that particular accommodation.

    I think we would all agree that terrorism is bad and should never be acceptable or accommodated...

    Just didn't want you to think I was coming down on you regarding this...

    Michale.....

  8. [8] 
    Michale wrote:

    Matt,

    You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.

    What a much better country this would be if our own politicians, Republicans *AND* Democrats, would follow this very wise advice..

    Michale.....

  9. [9] 
    BashiBazouk wrote:

    There are 8 to 10 BILLION Muslims on the planet.

    Are we counting apes or cats or something? Current world HUMAN population is just shy of 7 Billion and currently there are more christians than muslims. The current count is a little more than a billion and a half are muslims.

    Now, I ask you.. How the HELL can a Muslim terrorist organization even EXIST if 99.99% of Muslims are against the terrorist organization??

    Meh. The same could be said of many, many groups including christians, the political right or left et. How did Timothy McVeigh exist if 99.9% of the American political right are against terrorism?

  10. [10] 
    Michale wrote:

    There are 8 to 10 BILLION Muslims on the planet.

    Are we counting apes or cats or something? Current world HUMAN population is just shy of 7 Billion and currently there are more christians than muslims. The current count is a little more than a billion and a half are muslims.

    DOH!!!

    Did I slip a B in there?? I got the numbers from Matt's site a while back...

    I see now that I added a couple extra 0s in there..

    http://www.islamicpopulation.com/

    According to that site, the Muslim population is 1.82 Billion..

    Well, adjust my figures, but the point is still valid..

    Meh. The same could be said of many, many groups including christians, the political right or left et. How did Timothy McVeigh exist if 99.9% of the American political right are against terrorism?

    Ahhh, but no one claimed that we can completely rid the world of terrorism. Nor can we completely eliminate racism or hatred...

    While tragic, nutballs like McVeigh don't have an impact on society...

    I am referring to ORGAINIZED terrorism, IE terrorist groups......

    Tell me.. How big of a threat is the KKK these days??

    Nearly non-existent..

    Why?? Because the vast majority of Americans rose up and opposed such vile and perverted hatred...

    Because of that, the KKK has been rendered impotent as a threat to society..

    So, why is Al Qaeda et al such a threat WORLDWIDE if the majority of Muslims oppose terrorism??

    Answer.. The vast majority of Muslims around the world do not oppose terrorism....

    That is the ONLY logical explanation that fits the facts...

    If you have a better explanation that fits the facts.....

    "....I'm all ears."
    -Ross Perot, 1992 Presidential debates

    Michale.....

  11. [11] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Michale,

    Just didn't want you to think I was coming down on you regarding this...

    I would never think that, Michale. And, you made a very good point.

  12. [12] 
    Michale wrote:

    Liz,

    And, you made a very good point.

    Thank you. Coming from you, that is very high praise indeed..

    First NYPoet and now you. Ya'all are being really very nice to me..

    What?? Am I dying or something? :D

    Michale.....

  13. [13] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Perish the thought, Michale! :)

  14. [14] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    BashiBazouk -

    My cat is a Buddhist. I think. She seems to exhibit a lot of Zen characteristics, but maybe she's a Taoist. It's hard to tell...

    :-)

    -CW

  15. [15] 
    Moderate wrote:

    I have to say, I read that piece in the Telegraph that Michale linked to and it does describe how I think a lot of people in the UK feel about Obama. While Cameron has been anything but perfect (his "no fly zone" idea, for example, which it was ill-advised to announce until he'd worked out if he had support), unlike Obama he's seen to have at least been bold (and possibly foolish) than timid.

Comments for this article are closed.
[Powered by WordPress]