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If only a fine speech could help!

June 05, 2009 12:38 IST
After listening to President Obama's Cairo speech, I turned to twitter ( and tweeted, 'If only speeches, good speeches, could resolve the problems of the world!'

My next tweet was an after thought, 'Obama and Osama have spoken at the same time.'

I think I have said it all.

As is expected of a president who spoke his way to the White House, he made a speech, which any speech writer would be proud of. I am sure there are many in Washington who will claim paternity of one turn of phrase or one quotation in it. And it was delivered with perfection and a masterly use of the teleprompter.

But felicity of expression or even well intentioned articulation does not suffice, particularly if the effort is to change a centuries old mindset, marked by fear and mistrust. But as every commentator, Jew or Muslim, black or white, American or Arab, has said, it is a welcome first step.

At least, President Obama has made his position clear and there is nothing in his speech, which is offensive or unacceptable. If policies follow principles, we are in for exciting times.

Here at the Brookings Institution, which houses a special centre for the Middle East, the Obama speech has been a matter of speculation long before it was delivered. And now it is a matter of analysis by experts, who may have contributed ideas. But one need not be an expert to see that Obama has stated the American position in the best possible light.

Uncharacteristically, the theme of the speech was not change, but continuity, not blaming the past, but taking of responsibility.

Why was Egypt chosen as the venue for this historic speech? President Obama stopped in Saudi Arabia and probably gave a copy of the speech in Arabic to his host, but he did not deliver it there.

The reasons are not far to seek. Relations with Egypt are valued highly in the United States as a model, which should be replicated in other Islamic States. Perhaps, that is the model that President Obama is contemplating for Pakistan and Afghanistan.

When he mentioned the billions that the US is pouring into Pakistan and Afghanistan, he had precisely the Egyptian model in mind, by which friendship is bought by massive assistance and stability is provided by a leader, whose faith in democracy is not absolute.

After all, it was the Camp David accords that set in motion the long process of the recognition of Israel by the Arab states.

The new beginning that President Obama has sought, he claims, is rooted in history and traditions, strengthened by his own Islamic experience. The idea is to trash the conflict between the US and Islam in the modern era as the result of colonialism and Cold War.

He wants to remove the negative stereotypes that each has created for the other and move back to religious tolerance and racial equality, stressed by the Western and Islamic civilisations alike.

In principle, there is nothing questionable in this approach, but there is nothing in the speech that holds the key to open that door. Every leader in the world has said some time or another that we should follow our traditions, but we should not be prisoners of the past.

The problem lies in the interpretation of what tradition should entail and what it expects the faithful to do. If self sacrifice for the sake of that tradition gets currency, violence becomes legal tender.

Among specific issues, Afghanistan and Pakistan and Iraq come before Israel and Palestine. No US president would have followed that sequence a couple of years ago. For President Obama, the priorities are clear. As he says, his first duty as president is to protect theAmerican people, which include the soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Moreover, the fountains of terrorism are in the Afpak region. The troops cannot remain in Afghanistan and power alone will not do. The battle in Afghanistan is legitimate, but there are doubts as to whether war was the most effective way to deal with Iraq.

His defence of the war in Iraq is only that 9/11 led the US to act contrary to its traditions and ideals and that the people of Iraq are better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. By reiterating his schedule of withdrawal from Iraq, he seeks to remove the dark Iraq blot from the face of America.

Anyone who looks for clues of what President Obama proposes to do in the Middle East will be sorely disappointed with the speech. In the scale of support to Israel and Palestine, it is obvious that blood is thicker than water. It is one thing to say that the strong bonds with Israel are unbreakable and it is another thing to say America will not turn its back on Palestinian aspiration for dignity and opportunity.

Asking Palestinians to abjure violence at any cost and simply restating that there is no legitimacy to settlements is not an even handed approach. The basis of the final settlement is still the Road Map and nothing else.

If President Obama's claim that he will, from now on, say publicly, what he says in private is true, he could not have anything new to tell Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu or King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. No statesman can ever practice the Obama formula that he will be conscious of God and speak always the truth, as dictated by the Koran.

If he has nothing to offer beyond what he has said in Cairo on the Palestine issue, making peace with Islam will remain a distant dream. I very much hope that he has something else up his sleeve.

On Iran, President Obama has broken new ground by scaling down the rhetoric and affirming that the US is willing to talk without preconditions and by conceding that Iran can develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes under the provisions of the NPT.

Enrichment of uranium is not prohibited under the NPT and it was demanded only as a confidence building measure. It is unfair to ask Iran to abide by the NPT and also say in the next breath that enrichment should be halted to generate confidence in the West.

Sincerity of purpose is evident in seeking an accommodation with Iran in the larger context of seeking peace with Islam. It is here that the speech seems to have the potential to open new doors. Iran, after all, has a very important place in the Islamic world and the US cannot make up with Islam, while threatening to go to war with Iran.

Long sections of the speech on democracy (not necessary to insist on the Western style), women's rights, development and tradition, science and technology are there to establish that the West and Islam have much in common and the diversity can be an asset rather than a liability.

They match with the initial sections of the speech in which the President seeks to identify harmony rather than predict a clash of civilizations. Here he seeks to reassure the Islamic world of a certain flexibility of ideology, which should be welcome to the Muslim world.

It may have been no accident that yet another audio tape of Osama bin Laden has emerged on the eve of the Cairo speech. The time and context of the tape and its authenticity have not been determined, but it anticipates the conciliatory approach in the Cairo speech and dismisses it as of no consequence.

But the purpose of President Obama's diplomacy is to move away from extremist fringes on both sides and prepare for an eventual meeting of minds. But, as he asserts, no single speech can change much and all questions cannot be answered on one occasion.

President Obama has struck the right note both in Ankara and Cairo and set the Islamic world thinking about a world in which the US and Islam can coexist.

What he expects in return is a scaling down of the terrorist threat to the United States. Palestine is at the centre of any improvement in relations, but the President has brought up a number of other issues to establish certain complementarities between civilisations.

As the speech resonates well in the corners of the globe, the current scepticism about any American pronouncement may well give way to hope and optimism.

Former Indian diplomat T P Sreenivasan is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, working on a book on India-US nuclear cooperation.

T P Sreenivasan