Two Speeches and a Tragedy

By George Packer, The New Yorker - October 2, 2014

In his first year in office, President Obama gave two speeches—one in Cairo, the other in Oslo—that bear directly on the crisis in the Middle East today. The Cairo speech, in June, 2009, offered a message of peace and coöperation between America, the West, and the Muslim world. It sketched an optimistic vision of the future based on principles of mutual respect, tolerance, human development, and democracy. It quoted verses of the Koran to claim Islam as a religion devoted to these principles. The Cairo speech, coming just five months into his Presidency, depended heavily on Obama’s rhetorical power—and on the very fact of his Presidency as a world-changing event. Not only was he not George W. Bush, he was a black President with the middle name Hussein, who had opposed the Iraq War and spent time in places like Indonesia and Pakistan. It was like a campaign speech directed at Muslims. There was very little follow-up in the way of policies and programs. Today, from Tripoli to Raqqa, from Mosul to Ghazni, from Karachi back to Cairo, that speech is in tatters.

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