Friday, June 05, 2009

Reflections on Obama's Cairo Speech

By Michael J.W. Stickings

I was extremely busy yesterday and didn't end up posting my planned reaction to Obama's speech (focusing instead on Randy Johnson late last night). I will get to it today, and I'm sure I'll reference the speech in many future posts. (Actually, keep reading. This post has grown, as I've been writing it, to include some of my high-level thoughts on the speech, as well as on Obama's foreign policy. I'll leave the specifics for another time.)

In the meantime, make sure to check out Carl's excellent post. I agree with his very positive assessment. Yes, America has "truly rejoined the world community as a leader and a beacon."

And, as usual, I'm with Creature: "Reminds me of why I supported him in the first place. It feels good to be proud again."

I have been deeply disappointed with Obama's overly pragmatic (to put it nicely) approach to foreign policy thus far. In particular, I am disappointed with his emphasis on stability over democracy and human rights, notably with respect to China, Saudi Arabia, and other appalling regimes.

As well, like the editors of TNR, I have been "extraordinarily disappointed" with Obama's apparent inaction over the ongoing tragedy and catastrophe in Darfur. I was also disgusted over his refusal to call what the Turks did to the Armenians "genocide," as he promised during the campaign he would, preferring instead the word "slaughter," a less meaningful term (and one much closer to Turkish propaganda/revisionism).


Yesterday's speech was magnificent. The right, predictably, has been ripping it to shreds according to their own ideological prejudices, but it was respectful, forceful, sensible, principled, and indicative of a new chapter in U.S. relations with the rest of the world in general and with the Muslim world in particular:

All of us share this world for but a brief moment in time. The question is whether we spend that time focused on what pushes us apart, or whether we commit ourselves to an effort – a sustained effort – to find common ground, to focus on the future we seek for our children, and to respect the dignity of all human beings.

It is easier to start wars than to end them. It is easier to blame others than to look inward; to see what is different about someone than to find the things we share. But we should choose the right path, not just the easy path. There is also one rule that lies at the heart of every religion – that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. This truth transcends nations and peoples – a belief that isn't new; that isn't black or white or brown; that isn't Christian, or Muslim or Jew. It's a belief that pulsed in the cradle of civilization, and that still beats in the heart of billions. It's a faith in other people, and it's what brought me here today.

We have the power to make the world we seek, but only if we have the courage to make a new beginning, keeping in mind what has been written.

This, perhaps, is the essence of the "Obama Doctrine": a pragmatic approach to the realization of idealistic but fully realizable goals; an emphasis on what unites us, not what divides us; toleration of and respect for others; an attempt to build bridges across cultures and forge lasting connections to sustain a lasting peace; an understanding that we're all in this together, no matter who we are, no matter where we live, no matter what god or gods we do or do not pray to.

Matthew Arnold, one of my heroes, wrote back in the 19th Century about striving to achieve our "best self," both individually and collectively, notably though the acquisition and celebration of humanistic culture. In Obama, I still believe, Americans have chosen a president who genuinely believes in the possibility of America's best self -- and who wants America to strive towards that noble goal, a "perfect union."

America is waiting. The world is watching. And it is time to put words into action.

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