I was pleased by President Obama's speech in Cairo today. Many of the things I'd praise about the speech, which had many fine moments, will be praised elsewhere, so I'll confine myself to one detail of its purpose and of the expectations about it.
I've already seen some reaction from fairly hard-line Islamist figures rejecting Obama's gestures of reconciliation and mutuality. I have also seen some reaction that is surprised by that rejection, despite how deeply unsurprising it is, and even reaction implying that Obama's outreach has failed, and that his approach was "naive," and so on.
The leader of Hamas isn't buying what Obama's selling? Of course not. He's the leader of Hamas. No speech was going to change his mind. And Obama knows it. The speech is not meant to do that. That is not the sale Obama's looking for.
Yes, the speech presents itself as an invitation to a new beginning of cooperation, and on some level it is. But Obama knows that anti-Americanism won't vanish overnight and be replaced by a new pro-American attitude. That is his stated aspiration, not his genuine rhetorical goal. And anyone who expects him to magically convert all of America's bitterest enemies into allies tomorrow is being naive.
The speech is a beginning: the beginning of a debate. The goal of Obama's address was not to win over America's enemies through his personal eloquence. The goal was to put America's enemies in the Islamic world at a disadvantage in their argument with America's supporters. The leadership of Hamas might come around someday, at least in part, but only in response to political realities on the ground, because other groups are gaining traction against them. Obama wants to lend their opponents some rhetorical traction. Obama is not going to win the hearts or minds of Hamas Hezbollah. But he might put Muslims who share America's goals in a better position to win their own political battles with Hezbollah.
This is a version of what Andrew Sullivan calls Obama's "rope-a-dope" strategy. Obama reaches out an eminently reasonable and conciliatory hand to his opponents, they slap it away, and they make themselves look petty and unreasonable in the process. He's done it to the Republicans over and over again. Now he's done it to hard-liners in the Arab and Muslim worlds, and it's their turn to look bad. Yes, some hard-liners have already denounced Obama's speech. Obama's not interested in them. He's interested in peeling away their supporters. And he doesn't need to do all of the peeling today. This is the fabled Obama long game.
Obama chose to tell some unpopular truths to his audience, and he had a lot of good reasons. It burnished his credibility, as someone who was talking to the Islamic world honestly about the difficult things. It gave listeners a solid outlines of the points that weren't negotiable (with the unstated reminder that the Muslim world will never get a more sympathetic President of the United States, and are looking at the best deal they can expect). But just as importantly, it gave anti-American Islamists a list of talking points that are probably untenable. Obama pushed back on Holocaust denial and calls for Israel's utter destruction, which are real and toxic positions that have to be engaged. But Obama set up the engagements on his terms. If America's opponents want to put all of their chips down on Holocaust denial fantasies, I suspect Obama is looking forward to accepting that bet.
Yes this is a beginning. It's the beginning of an intense argument, in the Muslim world, about Obama and his speech. That argument will be won and lost by Muslims themselves, and not by Obama or any other Westerner, and it has already begun. But Obama has chosen the grounds for the debate, and he's given his supporters the best advantage he could.
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