Obama's speech in Cairo frames the debate over Middle East policy

Once again, the Commander in Chief became the Teacher in Chief, as President Obama delivered what many are calling an historic speech on the Middle East and the Muslim world—maybe more significant than his speech on race. It is premature to venture any predictions about outcome and results, but a careful reading will tell you that it was a strategic speech meant to frame the debate rather than achieve an immediate breakthrough.

The road promises to be long and arduous. The Muslim world remains divided as ever between moderates and what Obama calls “violent extremists.” Within Islam, it will take more than a speech to dissipate the mistrust that has lasted for centuries between sects like the Sunnis and Shiites. The manner in which the Palestinian issue has been handled within the Muslim world over the years has ranged from compassion to hypocrisy to duplicity. As for the existence of Israel, some like Egypt and Jordan have shown moderation and openness, but others like Iran and Syria have staked out positions aimed at keeping Israel on the defensive and reinforcing fear. Finally, we already know the reaction of Osama Bin Laden and his ilk.

What is impressive is how the American president dared to bluntly speak some truths that have gone a long way to make this region so explosive and so destructive. Obama is clearly staking his foreign policy agenda on bringing peace to the region. Economic recovery and universal healthcare, two important domestic tenets of his presidency, may well be easier to accomplish. But notice the pattern of this president. Obama frames the issue with the power of words, he starts the debate, and only later does he bring forward policy. The governments in the region cannot dismiss this intervention as a mere speech in Cairo. Israel may not be comfortable with it, but alienating their number one ally should not be an option. Iran can develop a nuclear policy, but having the nuclear bomb is not an option. Hamas may disagree with Fatah, but violence against Israel and questioning its existence is similarly not an option. One thing is clear from Obama’s speech: America stands for a two state solution regarding Israel and Palestine. I am certain the speech, well crafted and daring, will ultimately force change, but the kind of change still remains to be seen.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.