Obama in Cairo: Two Thumbs Up

A former Clinton speechwriter rates Obama's Cairo speech his best yet. Ted Widmer explains how the president's astute address to the Muslim world was of biblical proportions.

Ben Curtis / AP Photo

Bill Clinton's former chief foreign-policy speechwriter rates Obama's Cairo speech his best yet. Ted Widmer explains how the president's astute address to the Muslim world was of biblical proportions.

High ambitions? Check. Dramatic setting? Check. Eloquent language? Check. Actual substance? Check. New gizmos for texting the speech around the world? Check.

In all the important categories, President Obama’s Cairo speech cleared the high bar that he set for himself. Moses did not appear bearing tablets, but in almost every other way this was an event of biblical significance. It was long (YouTube clocks it at 55:46), serious, and covered a lot of ground.

No other president can say that he grew up listening to the sound of local mosques’ azaan, the Islamic call to prayer.

The degree of difficulty was not negligible, Obama’s powers notwithstanding. As we all know, he long ago announced his intention of giving a major speech in a Muslim capital. Fulfilling that promise required careful thought, however. No location was uncomplicated. Some places, like Turkey (where he gave a good speech in April), may have seemed insufficiently Islamic; others too far afield of the main theater. (Djakarta, clamoring for a visit, was reportedly considered.) Egypt is hardly a bastion of democracy, but Cairo is an incontestably great city, at the heart of the Arab identity, and home to more millennia than America has centuries. For all of its problems, Egypt is a deeply proud nation that has taken risks for peace, scolded the U.S. on occasion, and defined the pan-Arab cause since the days of Nasser and before. All in all, this was a good place to begin the conversation.

That we should see his speech as a beginning was more or less forced, when the White House titled it “A New Beginning”—starting a dialogue early in what we can presume will be an eight-year presidency. This is a very good sign, and heartening to all who hope for peace in a region that has never known it in Obama’s lifetime. There will be setbacks, and broken promises, and seething grievances. This is the Middle East, after all.

But the sooner we get going, the better. After eight years of an administration that talked big but delivered nothing, it’s a relief to find words attached to facts again. There’s a new sheriff in town, and it looks like he means business. While it is still very early to of weigh in with large historical judgments about this presidency, a tangible peace would be a presidential achievement like few others in the last half-century.

President Obama did what he always does well—reconciled two sides to each other’s existence. He cited the Koran movingly (twice), talked about Islam’s contributions to world culture, and went knowledgeably into America’s long relationship with the Arab world. He also cited an important historic fact that Americans know too little about—the 1953 overthrow of the elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, engineered by the CIA. It was not an apology, but an acknowledgment, and that fact will surely be appreciated by those who disliked President George W. Bush’s tendency to make elaborate moral claims for his foreign policy.

The speech also spoke about Israel—at shorter length, and with less feeling, but with the strong statement that her bond with America is “unbreakable,” as it surely is. (Some commentators have already interpreted this shorter attention to Israel as a sign of disapproval, but surely a speech in an Arab capital called for a high degree of attention to Islam.)

Of course, many of Obama’s predecessors have said similar things on occasion. President Bush, for all of his mistakes, spoke generously of Islam on several key occasions, including in the wake of 9/11. President Clinton often spoke of “our common humanity,” a phrase used today, and went to great lengths to see the Middle East conflict from both sides. (Full disclosure: I was a foreign-policy speechwriter for him.)

But there was a personal connectedness in Obama’s speech that may have brought a vital missing ingredient to the balm he now seeks to apply. No other president can say that he grew up listening to the sound of local mosques’ azaan, the Islamic call to prayer.

There are more indications that this is personal for him. He used that very important concept in another essential sentence—“That is why I intend to personally pursue this outcome with all the patience that the task requires.” It is a perfect sentence, conveying not only a most somber promise of his involvement, but also just the right word for what it will take. Not super-strength, or perfect virtue—but patience.

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There was also a lawyer’s clarity. For all of his eloquence, he spoke in short words about the causes of the conflict and the need to find solutions. While all presidents have politely asked Israel to restrain its relentless settler activity, there was a degree of finality in the simple words: “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.”

Tellingly, the president today linked the cause of Middle East peace with another historic episode that bears an obvious resonance for him—the civil-rights movement. That pairing is perhaps the clearest sign yet that this is no ordinary cause to him. Throughout the campaign, Obama claimed that a “Joshua generation” was needed to continue the work of the “Moses generation” of Dr. King. Today he showed that he intends to bring that same biblical vision to its logical conclusion in the Holy Land.

Ted Widmer, former director of speechwriting at the National Security Council under President Clinton, is the author of Ark of the Liberties: America and the World, and directs the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.