President Obama’s speech was better than expected, but less than what I was hoping for. We know that he can give a good speech, and he certainly did that in Cairo. However, I think that in his attempt to be balanced, he came out sounding too balanced, especially on democracy and human rights.
Probably he was trying to be careful not to offend his hosts, but as I said in my New York Times op-ed, I was hoping that he would speak directly to the leaders in the same way that he did in his inaugural speech when he said: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”
However, I understand why he was cautious when he talked about democracy and human right, and I can’t blame him. He obviously wants to distance himself from the rhetoric and policies of the previous administration, and I guess that’s why he also did not use the word “terrorism” at all in his speech. Still, I think that in the few words he said on democracy he made several good and important points:
America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.
There is no straight line to realize this promise. But this much is clear: governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure. Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away (…)
No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.
In any case, he had too much ground to cover, and therefore it was only normal that he would choose to focus on some issues more than others. I think the way he talked about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was different than what we usually hear from American presidents. Yes, he said the bond with Israel is unbreakable, but for the first time we hear a US president talk about “Palestine,” not just the Palestinian people, and use words like intolerable and humiliation to describe their suffering. It was also good that he dedicated parts of his speech to religious freedom and women’s rights, two issues where there is much to be done, especially here in Saudi Arabia.
Over all I think the speech was a good start for a frank dialogue between America and the Muslim world, but now those words must be matched with deeds so we can move forward. “And I want to particularly say this to young people of every faith, in every country – you, more than anyone, have the ability to remake this world,” Obama said at the end of his speech. Count me in. I, for one, want to remake this world, starting from here.
UPDATE 6/6/09: David Brooks described the part on democracy as “stilted and abstract — the sort of prose you get after an unresolved internal debate”:
But many of us hoped that Obama would put a gradual, bottom-up democracy-building initiative at the heart of his approach. This effort would begin with projects to create honest cops and independent judges so local citizens could get justice. It would make space for civic organizations and democratic activists. It would include clear statements so the world understands that the U.S. is not in bed with the tired old Arab autocrats.