President Obama fulfilled a campaign promise yesterday by delivering an eloquent, important speech to Muslims that should prompt Middle Eastern soul-searching for months to come.
Much of what he said at Cairo University he's said before. Virtually all of it was polite, and, like the man, temperate and even-keeled. But his outstretched hand and unclenched fist were lined with steel.
While the speech had many messages for multiple audiences, there was a central theme: Despite the long litany of grievances on all sides, Obama said he seeks with Muslims a "new beginning."
New beginnings require what analyst Hisham Melham calls musaraha in Arabic, or speaking frankly. Obama's speech had plenty of frankness.
When was the last time a US president appeared in an Arab forum to call for religious freedom for the Mideast's endangered Christian minorities?
Who was the last president to chide them -- in their own home -- for denying women the right to be educated and a choice between embracing a traditional or modern role?
Which president has told an Arab audience that denying the Holocaust was not only "baseless," but "ignorant" and "hateful." Obama did not need to name such culprits as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the world's most infamous Holocaust denier, or other sympathizers in the university's auditorium who conspicuously did not applaud.
Obama offered explanations -- but no apologies -- for America's post-9/11 invasions of Afghanistan or even Iraq, which he called a "war of choice" that "reminded America of the need to use diplomacy and build international consensus to resolve our problems whenever possible." At the same time, he said he believes Iraqis are "ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein." Coming from a president whose campaign was heavily based on opposition to the Iraq war, this was not an insignificant aside.
Terrorism and other forms of extremism cannot be excused, he insisted. Deploring those who tried to "question or even justify" 9/11, he asserted that terror victims were innocents and that America had responded appropriately.
"Despite the costs involved," Obama said, America's commitment to defeating such terrorism will not "weaken." Defending America, he said, is his "first duty."
There was tough talk about and for Israel, too. Alas, these were the only parts that won sustained applause in Cairo.
Obama reiterated his view that America's bond to Israel is "unbreakable" and that Israel's right to exist "cannot be denied." But he also declared that Israel's settlements on Arab land must stop, and that the Palestinians' suffering under occupation was "intolerable."
What he didn't say was that the Palestinians had brought part of that misery upon themselves by repeatedly rejecting Israel's right to exist and its peace proposals. How can there be a just, long-lasting two-state solution as long as one side insists on a one-state solution?
Obama also invited Hamas, a designated terrorist organization, to "recognize" its responsibilities and "play a role" in the future of the Palestinian people. This was not a policy shift, one official insisted, but the terms under which Hamas -- which was freely elected to represent more than a million Palestinians in Gaza -- would be able to play a role.
Specifically, Obama said Hamas had to "put an end to violence" against Israelis and fellow Palestinians, "recognize past agreements and recognize Israel's right to exist," none of which militant Hamas has been willing to do.
Some fear he was too soft on Iran. If Iran's nuclear program has reached a "decisive point," as Obama said, why did he "pointedly fail to reaffirm his . . . statement that his administration wouldn't allow Iran to attain a nuclear weapon?" asked David Schenker, a former Pentagon official.
Many Arab critics were quick to pocket Obama's conciliatory sentiments and demand more. They asked: Where was the policy beef?
But the speech was clearly intended to be a statement of principles to govern the new relationship with Muslims that Obama seeks. Policy pronouncements will follow -- and they're likely to be even more controversial than his speech.