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Posted by on Jun 4, 2009 in At TMV | 3 comments

So Who was Obama Talking to in Cairo?

President Obama’s speech in Cairo today was excellent (full text here). He gave historical context to grievances, lauded achievements, and affirmed commitments. He addressed primary concerns held closely by people on the various sides of many issues… and from my perspective, he did it very well.

Of course, noting that Obama gave a great speech is like noticing that the sun rose today. He’s really really good at it, as everyone’s long-since discovered. The real question is whether he broke any new ground, or changed perceptions in a meaningful way.

Did he do what he set out to do? Your answer to that probably depends on what it is you think he was trying to accomplish.

I’ve read some of the reactions online, and he’s coming under furious criticism from some predictable (and not so predictable) corners. In most cases, though, the negativity seems (to me) to stem from frustration and despair; that nothing will change; that Obama’s wasting his time (and everybody else’s); that the autocrats and despots haven’t the slightest interest in adjusting their positions. This blogger’s reaction is a somewhat muted, but typical, example:

Obama, like most liberals, believe that if we just talk things out and have a reasonable give and take, then we can make progress in the Middle East. That simply won’t happen in my view. While we are used to compromise here in the United States, there is no compromise with the likes of Iran, or any of the Middle Eastern countries that oppose us, that I can see.

My reaction, on the other hand, was very positive, and I think it’s because I didn’t interpret his speech as targeting the Muslim leadership at all.

Instead, I heard a direct appeal to the mothers and fathers; the students; the bakers; the ordinary everyday people who, just like all of us, are simply trying to get through this life peacefully. And the more I think about it in this context, the better I think his speech was.

By re-approaching and restating our shared goals and views at this temporal juncture, Obama is taking advantage of the perception (correct or not) that the United States has changed. Whether we in the US think there’s been a major change isn’t the point; it’s the audience perceptions that matter… and we were definitely not the target audience today.

That perception of America and change, by the way, is part of the backdrop that made this a great speech. Unlike Rick Moran (who has a decent off-the-cuff analysis up), I do think this moment in time amplifies the words spoken.

It doesn’t matter whether some of what he said has been said before, or who said it. Time, events, and the media have had a distorting, negative effect on our view of one another. As suspicious, cynical, or hostile as ordinary Americans have grown, so too have our counterparts elsewhere.

Do I think there will be some abrupt, miraculous change in policy from… say… Iran? Or Egypt? Or Syria? Not a chance (and some of the Israeli reaction is likely to be downright negative). If major, overnight changes were what he was after (or Americans were hoping for), then Obama’s effort today may very well turn out to be an epic fail.

If, however, he was talking to real people rather than governments, then he may very well have succeeded wildly — a result that won’t manifest for awhile, but could end up changing the future entirely.

What did you think?

Cross-posted from Polimom Too