To me the speech was mixed bag. Frankly, President Obama was stuck in a very difficult spot with so many competing interests looking onto the speech that it would have simply been impossible for him to please everyone. Furthermore, he was talking about concepts that he would need the better part of a year to fully explain and yet condensed them into a speech just less than an hour. On the plus side, Obama kept the apology tour and American recriminations to a minimum. He recognized the long standing alliance with Israel, and he condemned the Middle East's tendency to use the Palestinian/Israeli crisis to mask their own shortcomings. On the negative, he still couldn't resist condemning GITMO and "torture". Furthermore, he condemned Israeli settlement expansion in the exact same paragraph with Hamas violence. As such, he implicitly drew a moral equivalence between the two. Obama also never recognized that Israel is a Jewish state. This is no small matter because a good portion of the Middle East would like to see Israel flooded with Arabs and Muslims.
To me, the beginning of the speech was the strongest. President Obama went into great lengths into the history of the Muslim world and its relationship with the West and America specifically. He proclaimed our differences and then focused all those human traits that make all of us the same.
I know, too, that Islam has always been a part of America's story. The first nation to recognize my country was Morocco. In signing the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796, our second President John Adams wrote, "The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims." And since our founding, American Muslims have enriched the United States. They have fought in our wars, served in government, stood for civil rights, started businesses, taught at our Universities, excelled in our sports arenas, won Nobel Prizes, built our tallest building, and lit the Olympic Torch. And when the first Muslim-American was recently elected to Congress, he took the oath to defend our Constitution using the same Holy Koran that one of our Founding Fathers - Thomas Jefferson - kept in his personal library.
So I have known Islam on three continents before coming to the region where it was first revealed. That experience guides my conviction that partnership between America and Islam must be based on what Islam is, not what it isn't. And I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.
He touched on Afghanistan and Iraq. He couldn't resist taking a small backhanded slap at President Bush by calling Iraq a war of choice. He also pronounced that we have no intention of keeping our troops in country indefinitely.
He then moved onto the Israeli/Palestinian crisis. Here he simplified a very complicated situation, but frankly he had no choice. To truly fully explain this crisis, Obama would need to still be talking until this time next year. Still, he continues to see two states as the solution rather than the goal. It's rather naive to think that a two state solution is itself the solution. Everyone of reasonable mind would like to see two peaceful states side by side. That's the goal. The question is dealing with the multiple factions within the Middle East determined not to see this happen. Here was the weakest part of the speech for me.
Now is the time for Palestinians to focus on what they can build. The Palestinian Authority must develop its capacity to govern, with institutions that serve the needs of its people. Hamas does have support among some Palestinians, but they also have responsibilities. 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. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.
To put Israel's settlement expansion right after Hamas' refusal to recognize Israel and their violence against the nation is an obscene moral equivalency. He went on.
Israel must also live up to its obligations to ensure that Palestinians can live, and work, and develop their society. And just as it devastates Palestinian families, the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel's security; neither does the continuing lack of opportunity in the West Bank. Progress in the daily lives of the Palestinian people must be part of a road to peace, and Israel must take concrete steps to enable such progress.
While Obama made sure to mention the suffering of the Palestinian people under Israel's occupation, there are several things missing here. First, he never mentioned that when Israel withdrew from Gaza, this lead directly to significantly increased violence against it. Furthermore, he never once mentioned that the citizens of Sderot have faced constant and regular rocket attacks their citizens.
Not only did President Obama make it seem as though Palenstinians face a humanitarian crisis strictly at the making of Israel, but he never once acknowledged the humanitarian crisis created by the constant threat of rocket attacks.
The strongest part of this section came next.
Finally, the Arab States must recognize that the Arab Peace Initiative was an important beginning, but not the end of their responsibilities. The Arab-Israeli conflict should no longer be used to distract the people of Arab nations from other problems. Instead, it must be a cause for action to help the Palestinian people develop the institutions that will sustain their state; to recognize Israel's legitimacy; and to choose progress over a self-defeating focus on the past.
America will align our policies with those who pursue peace, and say in public what we say in private to Israelis and Palestinians and Arabs. We cannot impose peace. But privately, many Muslims recognize that Israel will not go away. Likewise, many Israelis recognize the need for a Palestinian state. It is time for us to act on what everyone knows to be true.
Too many tears have flowed. Too much blood has been shed. All of us have a responsibility to work for the day when the mothers of Israelis and Palestinians can see their children grow up without fear; when the Holy Land of three great faiths is the place of peace that God intended it to be; when Jerusalem is a secure and lasting home for Jews and Christians and Muslims, and a place for all of the children of Abraham to mingle peacefully together as in the story of Isra, when Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed (peace be upon them) joined in prayer.
The recognition by Obama that Arabs use this crisis to deflect from their own misgivings is an important one. The pronouncement that we will only allign ourselves with those seeking peace is a lofty goal and now we can only hope that this goal will be reached.
In Iran, Obama was weak and naive. He not only tied Iran's nuclear weapons expansion to nuclear non proliferation, but he again restated his belief that they have the right to peaceful nuclear expansion.
I understand those who protest that some countries have weapons that others do not. No single nation should pick and choose which nations hold nuclear weapons. That is why I strongly reaffirmed America's commitment to seek a world in which no nations hold nuclear weapons. And any nation - including Iran - should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That commitment is at the core of the Treaty, and it must be kept for all who fully abide by it. And I am hopeful that all countries in the region can share in this goal.
He made this statement without giving any inclination about how he expects Iran to show that it is peaceful. The Iranians are very likely to selectively read this speech and see this as a sign that they have free reign to move forward. It's also rather silly to believe that the likes of Iran and North Korea would stop their own nuclear intentions if President Obama were to lead an effort to reduce nuclear weapons around the world. Nowhere in this speech is an unequivocal statement that Iran gaining a nuclear weapon is simply not an option. It is clearly a goal of the administration but not one that it is willing to sacrifice for. This gives the Iranians free reign to continue toward gaining one.
The rest of the speech is remarkable for how similar it is to speeches his predecessor would have given. For all of Obama's criticism of George Bush, one can't help but notice how often on foreign policy he has maintained the same policies. The world is a very difficult and complicated place and Obama is noticing that while Bush's policies were often easy to criticize, they are often difficult to change. He spoke of the goal of democracy over dictatorship, the need for women's rights, and religious freedoms. I was especially taken by how bold it was for Obama to go to a police state like Egypt which, like most Middle East nations, has little tolerance for anything but Islam and pronounce that religious freedom is universal.
Islam has a proud tradition of tolerance. We see it in the history of Andalusia and Cordoba during the Inquisition. I saw it firsthand as a child in Indonesia, where devout Christians worshiped freely in an overwhelmingly Muslim country. That is the spirit we need today. People in every country should be free to choose and live their faith based upon the persuasion of the mind, heart, and soul. This tolerance is essential for religion to thrive, but it is being challenged in many different ways.
Among some Muslims, there is a disturbing tendency to measure one's own faith by the rejection of another's. The richness of religious diversity must be upheld - whether it is for Maronites in Lebanon or the Copts in Egypt. And fault lines must be closed among Muslims as well, as the divisions between Sunni and Shia have led to tragic violence, particularly in Iraq.Freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together. We must always examine the ways in which we protect it. For instance, in the United States, rules on charitable giving have made it harder for Muslims to fulfill their religious obligation. That is why I am committed to working with American Muslims to ensure that they can fulfill zakat.
This passage was very powerful to me. I believe there were gasps in the crowd as he said it as well. There were in fact a lot of gasps in the crowd throughout the speech. That's to the president's credit. He clearly didn't settle on a speech where he would pander for applause and popularity. He often took risks throughout the speech. He also couldn't resist the traps of criticizing his predecessor unnecessarily. His moral equivalency on Israel and Hamas is unacceptable and so overall, the speech was a mixed bag.