In the Arena

The Speech

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The buildup for President Obama’s speech today in Cairo has been prodigious, and not least by the White House, which has held the sort of briefings for journalists that usually attend a State of the Union address and also plans to translate the speech into 13 languages. The expectations are enormous. Brother Howard Fineman, writing in that other newsmagazine, compared the Cairo Address to Obama’s Philadelphia speech on race last year, which helped to extricate him from the Reverend Jeremiah Wright situation and frame him as judicious moderate on racial issues. But the real purpose of this speech is not so immediate.

I’d say the best precedents are the two Berlin addresses given by American Presidents, at the beginning and the end of the construction of the Berlin Wall. John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech was a full-throated announcement of a continuing American policy–the protection of a free Berlin. Ronald Reagan’s “Tear Down This Wall” speech came near the end of the cold war, and was a full-throated call for a Soviet surrender. 

The Obama speech will be neither, I’d guess–but it will contain elements of both. It will revise America’s posture in the region, toward a more respectful, ameliorating stance than the arrogant pushiness that marked the Bush Administration, especially in the leadup to and prosecution of the war in Iraq. Obama has already begun laying the groundwork toward that, especially in his Ankara speech. But what comes next? The immediate question will be about specifics: what sort of promises or demands will he make? Will he again call on the Israeli government to halt its illegal settlements? Will he call on the Arab world, including Hamas, to officially recognize Israel–or make diplomatic gestures leading toward recognition–in return? Will he renew the “freeze for freeze” offer–a sanctions freeze if the Iranians stop enriching nuclear fuel–or will he send another signal to the Islamic Republic that the U.S. wants to begin comprehensive negotiations soon? 

But the immediate signals are not nearly as important as the long-term change of tone. Obama is proposing diplomacy–and diplomacy moves slowly. As James Baker told Campbell Brown, when asked about how you achieve progress in the region last night:

Well, you get there by doing what the president is doing.  
Show these people that we value the relationship that has existed for
many years between their countries and our country.  Pay them attention,
which he is certainly doing. Meet with them, listen to their concerns.  And explain to them the importance of U.S. policy goals.  That’s a way you get there.  And I think it’s very healthy that he is doing this. 

Sometimes things do happen quickly in diplomacy–Anwar Sadat tells Walter Cronkite that he’s willing to open talks with Israel–but most often they don’t. Obama is still setting the stage, putting the pieces into place. Those who see  the speech as an attempt to solve a specific dispute or put pressure on a specific country are looking at this too narrowly. The President wants a general lowering of the temperature in the region. That will take some doing. This will be the start.