Thursday, June 04, 2009

Obama's speech

I had a chance to hear Obama's speech live this morning, but I really hadn't collected my thoughts. I still haven't, entirely, but I do have some reactions to share.

Unlike others, who chose to attack Obama's speech even before he gave it, I thought it made sense to wait to see what he was going to say, and how the speech was received.

1. He's right about both Afghanistan and Iraq. Obama points out that we had no choice but to invade Afghanistan after we were attacked without provocation or warning, and that we could, and should, have stayed out of Iraq. Events in Afghanistan have not proceeded to any plan I would have wanted, but the errors have mainly been the result of Bush's abandonment of the Afghanistan effort to invade Iraq.

2. Israel and Palestine.

Here are some key lines:

To play a role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations, and to unify the Palestinian people, Hamas must put an end to violence, recognize past agreements, and recognize Israel's right to exist.

At the same time, Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel's right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine's. The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.

He probably spoke more strongly in favor of Palestinian rights than any American president ever has. He showed that he recognizes and deplores the suffering of the Palestinian people, and he spoke directly against the Israeli policy of settlements in the occupied territories. The Israelis don't like what he said or how he said it, but we can't go on saying we disapprove of the settlements without doing anything to change Israeli policies.

At the same time he challenged antisemitism and Holocaust denial directly. It won't convince Ahmadinejad, but he may be the one Western leader that Arabs and Palestinians in the Middle East will listen to, and they need to hear this.

3. Women's rights. I thought he was too soft on this. You can't understand "a woman who chooses to cover her hair" outside of the context of a religion that, where it has the power, sends men out in the streets with sticks to beat women who are not covering their hair, face, or entire body, and will allow girls to burn to death in a fire rather than be rescued by male firefighters. I think he was concentrating too much on making nice with the intolerant, and that is not a winning strategy.

4. It worked. That was the way it sounded to me, listening to the audience. They were very receptive and positive. News reports bear that out.

CAIRO — Muslim shopkeepers, students and even radical groups such as Hamas praised
President Barack Obama's address Thursday as a positive shift in U.S. attitude and tone. But Arabs and Muslims of all political stripes said they want him to turn his words into action — particularly in standing up to Israel.

Obama impressed Muslims with his humility and respect and they were thrilled by his citing of Quranic verses. Aiming to repair ties with the Muslim world that had been strained under his predecessor George W. Bush, he opened with the traditional Arabic greeting "Assalamu Aleikum," which drew enthusiastic applause from his audience at Cairo University.

He opened with Assalamu Aleikum, and instead of the anoyingly ubiquitous "God bless you and god bless the United States", he closed with "peace be upon you." Contrast that with Bush talking about engaging in a Crusade. Talking in the language your audience will relate to helps.

This is only the first step in a very long journey. I don't kid myself that this solves everything, or even changes everything, but people will listen to him who would never listen to Bush or any American. This is something that McCain never could have carried off.


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