Obama’s Speech, Not Such a Big Deal, Except for…

Posted on June 5, 2009


Mostly, a rehash and the same stuff we’ve heard over and over again. I wonder if some of the gushing punditry I heard today watched the same speech I watched, or indeed, ever watched a speech by Bush to the so-called Arab and Muslim world.  It wasn’t like Bush was going over to Cairo and calling the legislature a bunch of camel-jockies. As others observed, addressing the Muslim world from Cairo is the equivalent of addressing the world’s chocolate lovers from a carob convention.  Criticizing Arab democracies while the guest of the US’s closest Arab and non-democratic ally in the region, needless to say, does nothing for his credibility in that region.

Likewise, Obama’s mention of Holocaust denial in the Muslim and Arab world was especially grating–as if it should matter what a group that had historically nothing to do with the Holocaust says about a genocide presided over by a European state and tacitly supported by the rest of the West. Also, the dichotomy that the President created to discuss the Palestinian-Israeli conflict–Israeli settlement building vs. Palestinian Terrorism–will infuriate many, given  Israel’s flagrant conflagrations in Lebanon and Palestine in the last half decade. His condemnation of Hamas…

“It is a sign neither of courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus,” he said. “That’s not how moral authority is claimed; that’s how it is surrendered.”

…makes one wonder if Obama understands what Israeli missiles and bombs do to Palestinian sleeping children and old women; not to mention waking children, young women, apartment buildings and hospitals.

It should be noted, however and obviously, that it is a watershed moment for an American president to proudly proclaim that his name is Hussein. As an Arab-American, I never thought I’d live to see such days.

There were some other important high notes: his rejection of the war on Iraq and his admission that the US tortured and violated human rights during the Bush administration, is not exactly brave, given that all the blame lies on his predecessor, but is welcome nonetheless. His references to US abuses in Iran were also unprecedented, but I think that is to be expected, since Obama has a mandate to seek some kind of rapprochement with Iran; indeed, this was the Clinton policy as well and only seems revolutionary when compared to the self-defeating rejectionism of the Bush years.

Obama’s vow to press Israel on settlements, though by a now a long abused and horse-whipped promise that can only engender disbelief in the Arab and Muslim world, will nevertheless be welcome if there is even a modicum of aggressive and principled movement on it. I’m not so impressed by the use of the words “occupation” and “Palestine”; for the past fourteen or so years, I’ve noted this as a right of passage for American presidents, who are lauded as the first to use term X or Y when referring to the Israeli-Palestine conflict. Obviously, no real change in US policies has resulted from the use of these novel incantations.

Though it’s much too early to say for certain that Obama’s high points were merely rhetoric, I think most of the Arab and Muslim world probably feels much I like I do. We’d be suckers to hold our breath, but we are willing to look the other way for another few months.

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