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Obama and the New Beginning

I want to write this article about the President’s speech in Cairo and the Obama Administration’s policies on the Middle East.

Now granted, I’m not an expert on the Middle East and American foreign policy. But I don’t think all discussion needs to come from the experts. So this article is for the non-experts. Let us proceed as intelligently as we know how.

My general belief here is that this administration is pursuing a markedly more intelligent and more honest course in the Middle East than the previous administration. Obama’s June 4th speech demonstrated a level of candor and humility I don’t think we’ve seen in the last eight years. The President spoke openly and directly about 9/11, about Guantanamo, and about the conflict between the Muslim world and the West.

Obama sought to bring about “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, on based on mutual interest and mutual respect.” The President began by addressing the absence of this respect in the past, discussing the Cold War, 9/11 and, of course, the Iraq War. But he made a strong case for the interrelatedness of our two spheres, citing his own personal story and the considerable population of Muslims and mosques in America. He went on to quote President John Adams, affirming that “The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility of Muslims.” He then went on to specifically and trenchantly discuss the current conflict, enumerating seven specific sources of tension including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nuclear weapons, and democracy in the region.

Now this was not the first speech Obama has delivered that deals with these issues—nor the first he’s delivered in the region. The Presidents speech in Ankara fell along the same lines. But this was by far the most public, most unified statement of Middle East policy to come out of this administration. And it’s a great statement.

The Presidents stance on the state of Israel marks a notable departure from the Bush administration. On the state of Israel, Obama has been compassionate yet firm, affirming strongly its right to exist free from prosecution but denying its right to expand aggressively in the region. He likewise affirmed the rights of the Palestinian people, saying America would “not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspirations for dignity, opportunity and a state of their own.”

Likewise, Obama’s words on the Iraq war were notable. He criticized the decision to enter Iraq, but reiterated our reason for staying, citing America’s “dual-responsibility” to both ensuring security and allowing Iraqi self-governance.

It may be that this speech could not have been possible until now. Whatever Bush’s intentions were—and I think they are arguable—he simply did not carry the ethical appeal that Barack Obama has in the region. Nor has any President in our history. If not groundbreaking in policy, this speech is certainly a political landmark.

But will it work? Can we really have a new beginning? Well, the President recognized that “no single speech can eradicate” the problem. But this speech, we must all hope, may mark the impetus of a huge effort. And I think it’s an effort worth supporting.



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