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Obama Sets Terms for Debates to Come

By The Australian, The Australian - June 6, 2009

June 06, 2009 02:18am AEST | Make this site your homepage

June 06, 2009

The Cairo speech was a great statement of American idealism

BARACK Obama is the orator of our age. The US President's speech in Cairo on Thursday echoed Lincoln by making a moral case for political change. It also resembled the work of Woodrow Wilson, in its optimistic assumption that the world can be re-made by men and women of good will. Mr Obama also told all his audiences - Israelis and Egyptians, Iraqis and Iranians, Jews and Muslims - much they wanted to hear and some things they didn't. But the tempered tone, the reasoned rhetoric, the appeal to peace were so powerfully expressed that it will be all but impossible for Middle Eastern leaders not to accept his invitation to join the search for a permanent peace. Like David Petreaus, the general who defeated the terrorists in Iraq, by speaking direct to ordinary people Mr Obama cut out the political demagogues and religious dogmatists who too often control the Muslim Middle East out of the debate. Palestinians who heard his call for a country called Palestine will wonder what the terrorists, whose endless attacks on Israel are the basis of their political power, have to offer. Israelis who heard Mr Obama speak of the unbreakable bond joining them to the US will ask what can be done to make permanent peace with Palestinians who accept the Jewish state's right to exist. Iranians who listened as the President endorsed their right to peaceful nuclear energy will question the sabre rattling of the regime that rules them. And all over the world Muslims will have heard Mr Obama's statements of respect for Islam and his promise to defend the US against all comers and contrast it with the irrational rhetoric of al-Qa'ida and its evil ilk. Thanks to his mixed race and his Muslim heritage Mr Obama has political capital in the Middle East. This speech demonstrated he intends to spend it.

But not in any detail. This speech was about changing the context of debates, not the detail of discussions on the two major issues in the region, the refusal of Shi'ite Iran to renounce nuclear research with a weapons development capacity and peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Sunni states from Egypt to Saudi Arabia fear the theocracy in Tehran wants to re-make the Middle East to suit itself. The way the Iranians use Palestinian terrorist organisations Hezbollah and Hamas as proxies in the Lebanon and Gaza is evidence of Tehran's tactics. The possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon also terrifies Israel, understandably given the way Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad talks about destroying Israel. Yet Mr Obama acknowledged all countries have a right to peaceful nuclear power. In an allusion to Israel's nuclear capacity he said the US aspired to a world without nuclear weapons - admittedly an aspiration which is no threat to the Israelis. With elections imminent in Iran and some hope of a more moderate successor to Mr Ahmadinejad this makes sense. If the time comes for confrontation with Iran Mr Obama want to be able to show he had tried to keep the peace. The same strategy of establishing his credibility as a peacemaker shaped Mr Obama's remarks on Israel and the Palestinians. Mr Obama made it plain that the US would never abandon Israel. He denounced Holocaust deniers and made it plain the US would not tolerate terrorists. And he urged Arab governments to stop using Israel's existence as a distraction from domestic problems. But while denouncing violence against Israel, he also criticised the creation of new Jewish settlements on land claimed by Palestinians. And in asserting his support for the two-state solution, Mr Obama also referred to "Palestine" - a nation that does not now exist. But overall there was nothing in his speech that can not be accommodated within the stalled road map peace process. Once again, Mr Obama was establishing his credentials for later negotiations.

In addition to Lincoln's ability to set out moral challenges and Wilson's optimistic internationalism, the Cairo speech included important ideas from a third president - George W.Bush. Mr Obama is far more subtle and sophisticated speaker than Mr Bush, but the pair share a belief in free speech, equality and the rule of law, freedom of speech and religion, and the right of ordinary people to choose their rulers. These are not, he said, American ideas, they are human rights. In Cairo Mr Obama spoke truth to traditional power - and across the Arab world ordinary people heard him.

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