Some Early Thoughts on Obama’s Speech

I listened live to the president’s Cairo speech this morning on my ride into work. I know that it will be parsed and dissected. Passages will be taken out of context, and sentences twisted beyond recognition. At times, it sounded like a state of the union address, with a litany of promises intended to appeal to particular interest groups.

That said, I thought the president hit the essential points without overpromising. He did not ignore that which divides the United States from the world at large, and many Muslims in particular, nor was he afraid to address squarely the lies and distortions – including the implication that 9/11 never happened, or was not the product of al Qaeda – that have made the situation worse than it should be. He stressed the common interests that should draw people to support U.S. policies rather than oppose them: these include our opposition to the use of violence against innocents; our support for democracy and self-government; and our hostility toward racial, ethnic or religious intolerance. All good.

Two particular comments jumped out at me (the speech text can be found here):

1. The president clearly stated his goals for the U.S. military presence in Iraq. He pledged to “honor our agreement with Iraq’s democratically-elected government to remove combat troops from Iraqi cities by July,” “the removal of our combat brigades by next August,” and “to remove all our troops from Iraq by 2012.”

This might not seem like much. As noted, it is the established policy of the U.S. government and the Iraqi government under the status of forces agreement. Some recent comments by Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey, however, implied that U.S. troops might remain in Iraq for a decade. I’m glad that the president cleared up the confusion.

2. President Obama wisely connected U.S. policy in the 21st century to its founding principles from the earliest days to remind his audience – or perhaps to teach them for the very first time – that the United States was not now, nor ever has been, at war with Islam, or with any other religion. George Washington affirmed the importance of religious equality in his letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island. President Obama quoted John Adams, who saw no reason why the United States could not enjoy good relations with Morocco, the first country to recognize the United States. When signing the Treaty of Tripoli, Adams wrote, “The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims.”

But the president also drew on the Founders to convey a broader message. They believed that the new nation should advance human rights and the cause of liberty by its example, not by military force. Some of our recent leaders seem to have forgotten that, and a few pundits have actually scorned the suggestion. The president wisely cast his lot with the earlier generation, quoting Thomas Jefferson who said “I hope that our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us that the less we use our power the greater it will be.”

It is a good quote. I use it in my book, too.