Alex Massie

Obama in Cairo

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I have no doubt that Barack Obama's speech in Cairo today will not have gone down well amongst American conservatives. In fact many of them will be appalled by it. How long before someone in the right-wing blogosphere writes something about how terrible, if unsurprising, it was to see an American President protstrate himself in such humiliating fashion. All the right's worst fears have com to pass! It's like Jimmy Carter has returned to the White House!

And, I guess, you could pull some lines from the speech that made it seem as though Obama was "apologising" for the United States while rarely putting as much emphasis on the sins of the muslim world. But that would be to miss the point: the arab and muslim worlds don't need to be lectured by the United States, they need to be engaged. And that was Obama's point. In fact, reading his speech, you'd describe it as a talk rather than a speech and certainly not as a lecture. Admitting mistakes is a means of gaining credibility and persuading other people that you're worth listening to.

But this was also a speech born of confidence. In the first place, Obama dared his domestic critics to do their worst, knowing that they would find plenty of material - however twisted their interpretation might be - from this address. It was a speech designed to be listened to, in the arab world even if that risked having it misconstrued at home. It was as though Obama decided that, this time anyway, he could ignore his domestic audience, knowing that, for once, it was much less important than the international audience.

Secondly, perhaps only a freshman President still enjoying the fruits of victory and, despite the economic times, high approval ratings would have dared make such a speech. True, even by the standards of the age, an element of arrogance to this as Obama suggests that only he can persuade the warring tribes in the middle east to lift their eyes from the petty squabbles that consume them and focus, instead, upon loftier and nobler goals.

So, this passage was typical of many:

I know there are many – Muslim and non-Muslim – who question whether we can forge this new beginning. Some are eager to stoke the flames of division, and to stand in the way of progress. Some suggest that it isn't worth the effort – that we are fated to disagree, and civilisations are doomed to clash. Many more are simply skeptical that real change can occur. There is so much fear, so much mistrust. But if we choose to be bound by the past, we will never move forward. And I want to particularly say this to young people of every faith, in every country – you, more than anyone, have the ability to remake this world.

That line, "if we choose to be bound by the past, we will never move forward" was strikingly familiar. It reeks of Tony Blair, doesn't it? As I've suggested before, the parallels between Blair and Obama are considerable and intriguing. Both prefer the big picture, both believe that if enough imagination, patience and determination is applied, all circles may be squared and that one may often actually have one's cake and eat it too. That they do so with a certain insouciant coolness infuriates their opponents who, frequently, punch themselves out  leaving them in no position to actually take advantage of their opponents mistakes.

Still, as the President said, a speech is just a speech. But that doesn't mean it is only a speech. Obama's ambition was to speak to muslims all around the world, not just to dictators and princes and emirs. The existence of the speech was probably more important than anything Obama actually said - most of which will be just as perishable as most speeches. But the image of th american president in Cairo may endure rather longer. Who knows how much it can achieve? But, as Blair might say too, the only thing worse than failing is not trying in the first place.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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