President Barack Obama called for a "new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world" in an historic speech delivered today in Cairo, Egypt. The fact is, though, that many people don't want one.
In ten days Iran has a national election that could have important consequences for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In past elections many eligible voters who opposed the Iranian regime did not cast a ballot. But there have been indications that more people will vote against the ruling government due to their country's growing economic difficulties and oppression.
So the Iranian leadership was taking no chances that a "rock star" president offering a new beginning would fire up opposition. Shortly before Obama spoke, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said, "The nations in the region hate the United States from the bottom of their hearts because they have seen violence, military intervention and discrimination." Speaking to thousands of Iranians on the twentieth anniversary of the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, he dismissed the American president, "The new US government seeks to transform this image. I say firmly, that this will not be achieved by talking, speech and slogans."
For his part, President Obama's call for a sustained effort to "respect one another and to seek common ground" may have sounded more appealing to Iranians who are able to get his speech. "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," the president said. Yet President Obama also said that America's strong bond with Israel is "unbreakable." And, referring to the Holocaust, he had an explicit criticism for President Ahmadinejad, "Six million Jews were killed...denying that fact is baseless, ignorant and hateful. Threatening Israel with destruction...is deeply wrong." Not surprisingly the Cairo audience did not applaud, but the whole Muslim world clearly heard this message loud and clear.
President Obama's much anticipated speech to the Muslims did not contain soaring rhetoric or new initiatives. Rather the president seemed to want to restate America's positions and begin a new very personal dialog with the Muslim world. The son of a Muslim from Kenya, and an African American who has lived in a Muslim country, this American president is different than all the rest. But President Obama was also realistic, "I do recognize that change cannot happen overnight. No single speech can eradicate years of mistrust." He then continued, "But I am convinced that in order to move forward, we must say openly the things we hold in our hearts, and that too often are said only behind closed doors."
The hardest challenge involves the Israelis and Palestinians. Here President Obama was straightforward; "the only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security." But the president signaled a change in U.S. policy when he indicated Hamas, a terrorist organization, could play a role in future negotiations. "Hamas does have support among some Palestinians, but they also have responsibilities," he said. "To play a role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations...Hamas must put an end to violence, recognize past agreements, and recognize Israel's right to exist."
Then President Obama firmly stated, "(The) United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements." He said that this violates agreements and undermines peace. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office issued a cautious statement in response, "The government of Israel expresses hope that President Obama's important speech will lead to a new period of reconciliation between the Arab and Muslim world, and Israel...Israel is obligated to peace and will do as much as possible to help expand the circle of peace, while taking into consideration our national interests, the foremost of which is security."
President Obama explained to his Muslim audience that his "first duty as President (is) to protect the American people." He described Al Qaeda as ruthless and determined to kill on a massive scale. He pointed out that they have killed more Muslims than people of other faiths. He explained the presence of American troops in Afghanistan and his desire to get them out as soon as possible. But he described Iraq as "a war of choice." And he said that the United States was in the process of withdrawing troops from that country.
President Obama's speech was interrupted several times by applause. Shouts of "we love you" could be heard on three occasions. The president's speech was truly historic and important. But there were no "Yes we can!" campaign slogans. Just straight talk. Peace in the Middle East has been elusive for more than 2,000 years. There are too many conflicting interests and complicated divisions within countries and within the Muslim religion. President Obama concluded his speech by quoting from the Koran, Talmud and the Holy Bible. He then ended hopefully, "The people of the world can live together in peace." He might also have said, "Bukra enshalla," or, "Tomorrow, God willing."