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When Obama talks, the world listens

COMMENTARY | June 08, 2009

International reaction, almost all of it favorable, picks up on many angles of the President's speech in Egypt but there is a call for action as well as words. In one place—Saudi Arabia—commentary is highly critical.

By Lauren Drablier

PARISPresident Obama’s historic speech in Cairo marked his most ambitious outreach project yet, according to some in the international press. There were both positive and negative reactions, and almost all in the international press emphasized the difference between words and actions. 

Many noted favorably Obama’s use of the words in Arabic asalaamu aleikum and his citations of the Koran. Some went so far as to say this could be the speech that topples the Iranian regime, and that Obama has now formally recognized Hamas. Others felt the  speech only covered the middle ground and did not go far enough.

Malaysian Star columnist Bun Nagara believes that words need to be accompanied by action and also argues that Obama’s speech could be the start of “inertia” on the part of Washington in Telling it like it is:

“The immediate reactions from around the world were largely predictable. There was scorn or skepticism from American neo-conservatives and militant Islamists, but also emerging shades of grey among the latter. However, those genuinely seeking a fresh start now have less reason to be dismissive.

“In sum, the address said the right things and omitted saying the wrong ones. Yet the speech is only a 55-minute collection of words, and up to only a year ago Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, then a campaign rival, was saying that all Obama had to offer were words.

“His Muslim audience was no less realistic. They generally approved of his message, but knew they still had to await its promise.

“That was already an indication of one of Washington’s impediments: inertia. Everyone knew administration inertia would grow amid the vested interests in stalling formation of a Palestinian state, but nobody knew it would start so soon.

“Just as much a challenge to actualizing Obama’s words is his credibility in the Muslim world. He had nurtured it, nourished it, and now it must continue to grow along with events on the ground. The Cairo speech is no substitute for action, only a prelude to it.

“Cairo saw a major verbal event. But the larger the talk the further the walk, and whether that walk would be a long march or a tightrope performance remains to be seen.

“Obama knows he cannot walk alone. Given the right policy action starting now, he would not need to.

An opinion piece in the Irish Times notes that Obama’s speech is an “excellent start to reframing relations” in Obama's overture to the Muslim world:

“The rapt attention with which the speech was followed in Cairo and throughout the Middle East, and the enthusiastic reception it received there, show this is so. It is important to understand why Mr Obama surveyed the full historical and cultural record of these relationships to begin a genuine dialogue. The Bush administration actively fanned anti-Muslim prejudice in its battle against terrorism following the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington in 2001. This framed the agenda underlying its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nuclear proliferation, democratic change, religious freedom and women’s rights, five of the tensions addressed in Mr Obama’s speech. Strikingly, it contains no reference to the “war on terror” but rather to “violent extremism in all its forms”. He stated categorically that “America is not and never will be at war with Islam”.

“Action and delivery must, of course follow. But this was an excellent start to reframing relations.”

In an editorial, the Times of India argues that Obama’s speech is the start of real change and marks a shift in US policy on a number of issues in Statement of Purpose:

“President Barack Obama's latest oratorical masterpiece is the speech he delivered in Cairo, addressing, as we were told, the Muslim world. It was quintessential Obama, high on rhetoric, symbolism and inspiring phrases. But it also packed much substance and, in some ways, marks a paradigm shift in US foreign policy.

“Obama's latest overture to the Islamic world in some parts of which anti-America feelings run high is clearly the centerpiece of his foreign policy rearrangement.

“Obama's strongest words though were reserved for the Israel-Palestine conflict. He challenged the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements in Palestine and promised that Americans would not turn their backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for a state of their own. This is a break from America's previous policy on Israel.

“Expect no miracles overnight, but if even some of the tensions between parts of the Muslim world and America were lessened during Obama's tenure, it would have benefited the entire world”

A columnist in Canada’s Ottawa Citizen writes that some of the parallels drawn between the US and the Arab world were a little stretched in Obama misses his ‘tear down this wall’ moment:

“Whether we like Barack Obama or not, few would disagree the United States is today being led by a man like no other in its history. And being black is not the reason why. It is the uncharted waters the American president has chosen to traverse that make his journey so captivating, much more than his mastery of oratory. His speech in Cairo yesterday was a milestone no other American president could have or would have cared or dared to reach.

“Of course America has miles to go before it rests, but to even hint of a parallel between the challenges facing women in America and the appalling condition of women in the Arab world is downright dangerous and only feeds the mullahs who will say, “Look, even America discriminates against women — Obama said it.”

The Australian suspects that Obama’s speech may be the Moment that could topple Iran regime:

“While Barack Obama's speech is being pulled apart by many for what he said about Israel, his comments on Iran may prove to be more groundbreaking.

“For starters, let's just acknowledge that this is a profound speech whichever way you look at it - a US president with Muslim roots stood in Cairo to talk about the Washington's unshakeable bonds with Israel and its right to exist in an ancestral homeland.

“Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clearly disagree on settlements and the broad strategic approach to the Middle East.

“Obama probably holds the upper hand, since Israelis traditionally become nervous if their leaders fail to get along with Washington.

“But consider another agenda that may work in Israel's favor.

“In just a week Iran goes to the polls. Obama's Cairo speech appeared to attempt to undermine the demagoguery of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

“A few hours before the speech, the leading moderate in Iran's election, former prime minister Mirhossein Mousavi, accused Ahmadinejad of humiliating the Iranian nation by adopting "extremist" foreign policy.

“Then Obama's speech. If Ahmadinejad loses it might be seen as a watershed moment in the US use of "smart" power. Obama made the extraordinary admission that the US was involved in the overthrow of the democratically elected government in 1953. His speech could help do the same job next week.

“That would be an astonishing result - and without a shot fired. Let's hope it works.”

An editorial in the UK’s Financial Times highlights various opinions from around the world – all alluding to the fact that Obama’s actions must follow his words in order for change to take place in Muslims want action after words:

“…from the cafés of Cairo to the streets of Saudi Arabia, many Muslims tempered their newfound enthusiasm for the US president with the hope that eloquent words would be followed by foreign policy actions.

“In Iran, where Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, had warned hours earlier that ‘sweet and beautiful talk cannot make a change’, the reaction was more mixed. Some people, however, appeared taken by the US president.

“‘We have reached a good stage that we had not imagined we would reach with an American president,’ he said. ‘These were good words but the eloquence of action is more powerful than the eloquence of words.’

“‘He hit all the right notes,’ added Maleeha Lodhi, former Pakistani ambassador to the US and UK. ‘But the test will come in the conduct of US policy not the offer of promises.’

“‘The important thing is how this will filter down to the ordinary man in Upper Egypt, in a province of Malaysia or in the caves of Pakistan and Afghanistan,’ said a Gulf official. ‘The problem is how you get the message to the ordinary man, the man who would be proud if his son would go and blow himself up.’

“The speech did not, as had been hoped in some Arab capitals, lay out the administration's plan for peace in the Middle East, but it included a pledge that the president would ‘personally pursue’ a two-state solution ‘with all the patience and dedication the task requires’.”

A writer in Lebanon’s Daily Star says that while Obama seeks to combat Islamic terrorism through the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the historic relationship between the US and Israel will remain in The end of the 'special' US-Israel relationship? Not just yet:

“Netanyahu persists in questioning Obama's infatuation with the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and he refuses to see the link that Obama believes exists between an Israeli-Palestinian peace and his capacity to curtail Iran's nuclear ambitions.

“Crises and profound disagreements are not new in the relations between these two unequal allies. But, however fundamental the current differences might be, it is the underlying suspicion that Obama is poised to shift America away from its unique relationship with the Jewish state that most worries Israelis.

“Obama is a revolutionary phenomenon in American history; he certainly does not fit the traditional pattern of American presidents after World War II. He was far less shaped by religious and biblical teachings than all of them, and the narrative of Jewish history and of Israel's heroic emergence out of the ashes of the Holocaust is not the primordial sentiment in his attitude toward the Arab-Israeli conflict. The narrative of the Palestinian tragedy is certainly no less central in defining his view of the Middle East.

“The thrust of Obama's Middle East policy - reconciling America with the Arab and Muslim world - clashes with Netanyahu's strategy. For Obama's emerging policy assumes that the best way to address the challenge of Islamic terrorism and stop the region's decline into uncontrolled nuclear proliferation is to force Israel to stop building new settlements, withdraw from the occupied territories in order to allow the creation of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, and make peace with Syria by giving back the Golan Heights.

“But this does not necessarily mean that we are witnessing the end of the US-Israel ‘special relationship.’ Even a revolutionary president will not depart from America's core commitments to an Israel that fights for reasonable and morally defensible positions.

“It remains to be seen if the abysmally dysfunctional Arab world and the powerful non-state agents in its midst, such as Hamas and Hizbullah, will respond the way Obama expects.

“More importantly, the Palestinian leadership must reshape and reunite its polity to face the challenge of statehood. So far, the task of reconciling Hamas and Fatah seems to be no less daunting than that of striking a peace deal with Israel.”

In Obama begins a new beginning, a writer in Qatar’s Al Jazeera expresses the enthusiasm many have for his approach to Middle East relations and his emphasis on basic human rights no matter what faith or nationality:

“One minute into his speech he won nearly every heart and mind in the great hall, announcing his pride to be carrying "the goodwill of the American people, and a greeting of peace Muslim communities use in my country: asalaamu aleikum.

“I never imagined, as an American and a Muslim, that I would ever hear an American president invoke the blessing of Islam or to go on to quote from the Quran, as he would do several times with great relevance…

 “But this extraordinary event was more than superb pacing and performance, more than the soaring, almost classic oratory Obama is famous for and that translates so well into modern literary Arabic.

“But it quickly became clear that he was basing that new beginning on acknowledging realities and speaking hard truths – to Americans and to Israelis as well as to Arabs and Muslims.

“But he engaged rather than denounce those in the Muslim world who doubted America's intentions, in effect renouncing that overbearing theme of his predecessor that "whoever is not with me is against me".

“The range of the US president's speech was broad, reaffirming his commitment to human rights, democracy and women's rights, but also stressing the importance of development, job creation and extending education, particularly to women, that is problematic for much of the Muslim world.

“Even more significant was his acknowledgement that Hamas enjoyed popular support among Palestinians and it was in this context that he made the usual call for Hamas to renounce violence, recognize past agreements between the Palestinians and Israel, as well as recognize Israel's right to exist.

“Suddenly he was advising Hamas, not denouncing it, to accept the responsibility of governing. Perhaps historians will remember this speech as the moment America's engagement with Hamas began.”

Singapore’s Straits Times highlights the positive responses from the world’s most populous Muslim country, Indonesia.  The article also references the importance of action rather than just words in Bridging the gap:

“The world's most populous Muslim nation hailed American President Barack Obama's speech in Egypt on Thursday as a step towards bridging the psychological gap between the United States and Islamic countries.

“'He set a positive tone at the nerve centre of the Islamic world and the epicenter of the Middle East where tension exists over the Palestinian issue,' Indonesia's Foreign Ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah told The Straits Times.

“Many Indonesians had hoped Mr Obama would deliver his first major speech to the Islamic world from Jakarta, as Indonesia is the world's third largest democracy and one of Islam's most moderate countries. But they understood his choice of Cairo.

“Analyst Bantarto Bandoro of the Indonesian Institute for Strategic Studies noted that Mr Obama, who lived in Jakarta as a boy, had drawn on his personal experiences. 'Mr Obama recognises there is religious tolerance here and that women can get elected into political office,' he said. He also said he hoped Mr Obama's promises become policies.

“Mr Abdillah Toha, a legislator from the Muslim-based National Mandate Party, said: 'Our sympathy and support could later melt down if he doesn't do anything.'”

In Obama sweeps Egypt, Israel’s Haaretz believes that he “infused hope” into hearts and minds across the Islamic world:

“The words sounded familiar, but the melody was totally new to Muslim ears and full of hope for believers of all three religions. He quoted the Koran and did not attack Hamas, Iran or Hezbollah. He promised that American forces would withdraw from Iraq by 2012 and that Israel would stop construction in the settlements.

“In one sense, Obama did what was expected of him: He infused hope into people's hearts. His optimism permeated the audience. For a moment, it seemed that world peace was not just a slogan for beauty queens, but an achievable ideal.

“But not everyone was enthusiastic about the speech. ‘We heard this at Annapolis and Madrid,’ said parliament member Nabil Beblawi. ‘We need action. If the speech isn't followed by action, it will end up in the wastebasket.’”

Saudi Arabia’s Arab News writes that Obama’s speech lacked a condemnation of Israeli attacks against Palestinians, demonstrating a bias towards Israel in Obama’s outreach pointless:

“These words were well received by Muslims everywhere who are eager to see an end to the war that was waged on Islam by George W. Bush. For eight years Bush’s administration adopted a policy of applying collective guilt on all Muslims and conducted a smear campaign against Muslim ideology and way of life. This angered and alienated Muslims and made America lose all its allies in the Arab and Muslim world. Obama promised to reverse this policy…

“Obama later spoke about another source of tension, “the situation between Israelis, Palestinians and the Arab world.” However, this is where Obama lost the hearts and minds of many Arabs and Muslims. He was right when he said that, “No single speech can eradicate years of mistrust,” but neglected to add, and years of abuse and deception.

“Obama lost many of us when he chose to stress that “the Palestinians must abandon violence,” but omitted to show any condemnation of Israeli atrocities and war crimes. Instead he described Palestinians’ legitimate resistance as violence, which he thinks would lead to a dead end. He said, “It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or blow up old women on a bus.” Again we were reminded of the continued American double standards and American insensitivity to the killings of women and children in Gaza and the Palestinian territory.

“What about Israeli use of lethal weapons and the destruction of Palestinian homes and schools? What about Israeli use of F-16 fighter planes and Apache helicopters to slay a wheelchair-bound cripple or to deliberately target Gaza schools and bakeries?

“President Obama also should realize that it is neither a sign of courage nor power to keep thousands of innocent women and children in jails for many years and deprive them of their freedom and dignity. It is inhumane and against all human rights to evict a people from their lands and destroy their homes, deprive them of food and water and leave them to die a slow death without medical help or proper sanitation. Which situation deserves more sympathy and attention?

“Clearly Obama has demonstrated once again that the American bias toward Israel will never stop and that the US can never be an honest broker in this conflict.

“The new American administration must recognize that the Muslim people’s bond with Palestinians will continue to grow with or without its support. This bond is also unbreakable. It also is based upon religious, cultural and historical ties and that the aspirations for a Palestinian state is rooted in a religious and historical conviction that cannot be denied.

“There are still many questions that demand clear answers. Will Obama fulfill his promise to put an end to Israeli violence and expansion? Will the US continue to supply sophisticated weaponry and vetoes that support Israel? Will there be more positive American policies toward the Middle East and the Muslim world? Many Muslims are still very skeptical and have little faith in America’s will to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. They remain wary of President Obama’s ability to halt Israel’s atrocities and deliver peace to the Middle East.”

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