Saturday, June 06, 2009

Mark Lynch on the Cairo Speech

The Aardvark has been on my blogroll for a long time.He is a man of many words but also very smart. When he says something is worth quoting, believe it.

Israelis and Palestinians. I'm still struggling to grapple with this truly astonishing portion of his speech. I don't think I have ever heard any American politician, much less President, so eloquently, empathetically, and directly equate the suffering and aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians. This is the one part which I have to quote:

Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust. Tomorrow, I will visit Buchenwald, which was part of a network of camps where Jews were enslaved, tortured, shot and gassed to death by the Third Reich. Six million Jews were killed - more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, ignorant, and hateful. Threatening Israel with destruction - or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews - is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.

On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people - Muslims and Christians - have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations - large and small - that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.

For decades, there has been a stalemate: two peoples with legitimate aspirations, each with a painful history that makes compromise elusive. It is easy to point fingers - for Palestinians to point to the displacement brought by Israel's founding, and for Israelis to point to the constant hostility and attacks throughout its history from within its borders as well as beyond. But if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth: 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.

This is quite possibly the most powerful statement of America's stake in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the urgent need for justice on both sides that I have ever heard. He posed sharp challenges to Israelis and Palestinians alike, directly addressing the realities of Palestinian life under occupation and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza while also empathizing with Israeli fears. He positioned the U.S. as the even-handed broker it needs to be: "America will align our policies with those who pursue peace, and say in public what we say in private to Israelis and Palestinians and Arabs." Left unsaid, but clearly in the background, was the fact that he has been matching those words with deeds by forcefully taking on the issue of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

He also offered a powerful analogy to the American civil rights campaign and other global experiences to argue that "that violence is a dead end. It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered." I really like this analogy, which he extended well beyond America's shores. Some Palestinians will likely complain, though, that their own attempts at non-violent activism too often get crushed beneath Israeli bulldozers. How will the U.S. and the international community support such non-violent action and redeem such moral authority?


Hoots said...

Tom Ricks, another favorite of mine, is in the same stable of commentators at FP as Lynch.

His take on the speech:
The only people denouncing President Obama's Cairo speech seem to be right-wing nuts at home and Islamic extremists abroad. This is a good set of opponents to have.

More at the link.

Hoots said...

Leila Abu-Saba posts a summary of reactions to the speech. The one I like best is from the Facebook wall of Saifedean Ammous:

For almost a month, everyone everywhere has been talking about Obama’s speech in Cairo as if it actually matters for anything. Obama’s PR/Foreign Policy team have built it up to be such a giant spectacle that people seem to have forgotten that at the end of the day, it is nothing but a speech by a man who has given several hundred speeches over the last two years. It is a collection of sounds coming out of a man’s mouth. It matters for nothing. He said nothing new, added nothing new, and affected nothing real in any real way.

If there was anything important in this speech, he could’ve announced it at any point in the last few weeks of build-up and gotten it over with. But creating this giant spectacle turned this speech into a global quasi-religious interpretation-fest where everyone and their dog analyzed, with ridiculous detail, every last word Obama said, how he said it, and how he looked when he said it.

So we now know what Obama’s new foreign policy is going to be: talk, speeches, platitudes, oratory and rhetoric. The good news, as Churchill would have it, is that “to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war”. I’d gladly sit through 12 Obama speeches a day over one of Bush’s wars. The bad news, however, is that this jaw-jaw-fest has very sneakily turned everyone’s attention from what the US Government does, to what its talismanic leader says. There is no better recipe for stalling, doing nothing and maintaining the status quo.

...A charitable interpretation might hold that Obama really does seek to bring about real change on all these issues, and is biding his time with speeches and friendly gestures to set the stage for this change. But the reality on the ground, unfortunately, speaks louder than any words. Churchill’s quip might not apply here since, after all, the war-warring continues regardless of the jaw-jawing. Worse, the excessive fixation on speeches is helping distract everyone’s attention from the real problems of unending war.

I would love for nothing more than my skepticism to be misplaced.