The speech delivered by US President Barack Obama in Cairo last week was impressive in intent, taking on the great rift that now divides the United States and the Arab and Islamic world. Its main impact, however, was to generate cautious optimism. Too many times burned, most observers received the speech with a wait-and-see attitude, hoping for practical implementation of these expansive new ideas.
Obama’s speech can be divided into two spheres: the first was general and conceptual, engaging the relationship between the American people and US administration and the Arab and Islamic world. The other was practical, concentrating on the Arab-Israel conflict and Iranian-American tensions.
Dealing with the first–and more prominent–level, the president showed a depth of understanding and used language that were together a marked departure from the approach of the previous administration. Political ideology, and the September 11 events, led the previous administration to deal with problems in the region–including "terrorism"–as solely technical, and related to security and the military. This approach produced superficial and wrong-headed diagnoses and treatments, and deepened negative attitudes in the region toward the American government.
Obama’s speech went much deeper than others in diagnosing regional problems, referring, for example, to the negative impact of globalization in the region, which has swept in western cultural domination and all the resulting negative social and economic implications. This nod, together with prescriptions for improving and investing in education and women’s issues, shows a level of understanding that the people of the region are not used to in American rhetoric.
On the Arab-Israel conflict, the speech was also successful. Obama used the term "occupation", which has been intentionally banished from western diplomatic language for at least a decade. He also referenced the tragedy of the Palestinian refugees–their loss and displacement. And most importantly, he used clear language criticizing Israel’s settlement expansion and the need for it to stop.
People in this region have a long and negative experience with changing rhetoric, verbal declarations and politicians’ waffling over this conflict. All the while, however, the trend on the ground is for the worse. This has left the region’s peoples, especially Palestinians, unable and unwilling to build their hopes on words. We need concrete and practical change in our daily lives to convince us that it is, in fact, possible to end Israel’s occupation.
The US administration will now face the inevitable contradiction between its refreshingly strong insistence that Israel stop all settlement expansion and the continuous construction underway in the settlements–nails driven in place and cement poured at the very moments that Obama was speaking. In other words, the credibility of the US president is on the line in the region–first and foremost over the issue of Israeli settlements.
But also important to realizing the vision presented in Obama’s speech is the creation of local political realities more conducive to political progress. Yes, that means encouraging and empowering the Palestinian peace camp, but it also means supporting Palestinian dialogue between the factions by offering incentives, and encouraging Hamas to become part of the legitimate political system rather than forcing it out. Hints of this direction were to be found in Obama’s speech. Now we wait to see what he will do.