Obama’s Speech: Great Oratory, Wrong Message

By Ramzy Baroud

If great oratory is a prerequisite to peace, justice, and human rights, then President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo, on June 4, shall be enough to cure every ill afflicting every Muslim nation. But since rhetoric never solved any real problem, one is left to question the wisdom behind Obama’s touted speech, clear or vague language, and all other indicators.

It was clear that Obama’s speech was not aimed at delineating a clear US foreign policy towards Muslim nations. In fact, it was merely an image booster, not only to help the United States regain some of its tattered standing among Muslim nations, but also worldwide, for the US image is certainly tainted beyond the parameters of the "Muslim world". 

Misreading the Conflict

Obama’s words in Cairo were meant to reveal a clear divergence from the past. They did so, ever hesitantly. 

"We meet at a time of tension between the United States and Muslims around the world, tension rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate," he said.

Untrue. The roots of the tension are crystal clear: imperial arrogance, occupation of Arab and Muslim land, violent policies against those who fail to comply with US interests, the unconditional support of Israel, and the backing of corrupt, undemocratic Arab regimes; the demonization of Islam and Muslim culture are but a few of the reasons behind the hatred of US foreign policy.

Although Obama tried to address the relationship between "Islam and the West" in somewhat positive terms — those of "centuries of co-existence and co-operation, but also conflict and religious wars" — he deliberately failed to take responsibility for his country’s detrimental colonial designs in Arab and Muslim regions. He recycled the "clash of civilizations" discredited discourse, which gained credence under his predecessor. When millions of people are killed, wounded, and displaced by an unambiguous US agenda to achieve political and economic gains using violence, the issue then is much bigger than a simple perceptional problem that may have led "many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam."

In fact, as unpopular as this may sound, violent extremists did not exploit "these tensions in a small but potent minority of Muslims." The roots of extremism in the Arab world are largely related to the utter despair and anger caused by mass oppression, lack of democracy and economic and political equality, courtesy of the United States and its "friends and allies" in the region.

To confront extremism, even if symbolically, Obama should perhaps start with a few goodwill gestures: clearly apologize to and compensate the unfortunate prisoners of Guantanamo, cease bombing of civilian areas in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and call on Gaza’s border guards to allow some food and medicine in to the devastated population.


"The situation in Afghanistan demonstrates America’s goals, and our need to work together. Over seven years ago, the United States pursued Al-Qaeda and the Taliban with broad international support. We did not go by choice, we went because of necessity," Obama stated, adding, "Al-Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 people on that day [9/11]. The victims were innocent men, women, and children from America and many other nations who had done nothing to harm anybody." 

Only a pitiless person would question the innocence of those who were killed in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. But should that in any way justify the killing of many thousands of equally "innocent men, women, and children" from Afghanistan and Pakistan, who also had done nothing to harm anybody? Unfortunately, one cannot provide a specific figure regarding the victims of US violence in these countries, as that of 9/11 victims. The many thousands who perished there remain nameless and their victimization is effortlessly justified as "necessity". Is this not the same logic used by extremists who argue that it was the US violent policies in the Middle East that forced them to respond in kind?


"Although I believe that the Iraqi people are ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, I also believe that events in Iraq have reminded America of the need to use diplomacy and build international consensus to resolve our problems whenever possible…"

No apology for the murder and displacement of millions of Iraqis, for a whole generation of orphans and widows, for the destruction of what was once one of world’s greatest civilizations. The Iraq war was a mere lesson in diplomacy, not modern history’s embodiment of brutality and torture. Clever oratory obviously has its uses: it conveniently minimizes grave war crimes and crimes against humanity of oneself, and augments the crimes of others.


"The second major source of tension that we need to discuss is the situation between Israelis, Palestinians, and the Arab world." Even if speaking from a Muslim capital in a message whose target audience was the "Muslim world", Obama hardly failed to deviate from infusing his disclaimer, that of "America’s strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable. It is based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied."

Obama went on to elucidate the entire Zionist historical context that helped create a Jewish state on the ruins of Palestinian towns and villages. He provided a fair account of the persecution of the Jewish people — by the West, not Arabs or Muslims, of course. His exposition was all true, of course, but the context in which such history was placed, was most unfair; for it is irrational to justify the establishing of a "Jewish homeland" on the land of another nation that had nothing whatsoever to do with plight of those who were "enslaved, tortured, shot, and gassed to death by the Third Reich."

Then, Obama gets to his point, and vagueness, once more, revisited. "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 60 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."

Correction: initially, Palestinian suffering was not an outcome of their pursuit of a homeland, but their ethnic cleansing — from their own land — at the hands of the West-backed, politically supported, financed and armed Jewish militants, who used — and still use — the Holocaust as a justification for their action.


Obama however, reached the heights of arrogance when he began lecturing the victims in Palestine on the morality of non-violence. "Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the centre of America’s founding." 

What a selective reading of reality and history. In fact, for generations Palestinians have used all sorts of non-violent means of resistance. Their violent responses are often desperate attempts at quelling the brutally violent policies of the state of Israel, again, violence that is largely financed by Obama’s government and passed administrations.

It would have been more appropriate for the United States to examine its policy of military funding to Israel, of weapons that are often used against unarmed civilians, illegal weapons of all sorts that are readily experimented against a vulnerable and besieged population, with Gaza being the stark example.

Last, Mr. Obama should consult with his speech writers over the palpable omission of relevant history, for afterall, US history books teach that the Civil War was largely fought to free the slaves, and that the Revolutionary War was fought by patriotic Americans to gain their freedom from the British crown; both were extreme acts of violence that cannot possibly be compared by Hamas’ Gaza rockets. Why the historical revisionism when it comes to oppressed people? Why the enthusiastic justification for violence in Afghanistan, and elsewhere, and the condemnation of violence when used by the oppressed?

Obama also touched on Hamas’s political rise to power. The terminology was most selective. "Hamas does have support among some Palestinians," he said. Note the use of the word "some".

Correction: Hamas was elected by a majority of Palestinians in a popular democratic election, whose outcome displeased the United States and Israel, resulting in the collective punishment of 1.5 million people for daring make a choice inconsistent with US foreign policy and Israeli interests.

Imposing Peace?

"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. We cannot impose peace," Obama said. True, but neither Palestinian, nor Arab or Muslim grievances and expectations from the United States ever including a call on Obama or any of his predecessors to "impose peace", not in Afghanistan, not in Iraq, and certainly not in Palestine.

What Muslim peoples and nations want from the United States — as articulated in their chants, since they are denied democratic platforms to express such demands — is to bring its colonial drive to an end; to cease its imperial hubris; to quit standing on the wrong side of history by funding and justifying the Zionist colonial program in Palestine; by no longer identifying and backing corrupt rulers and self-serving elites — "our friends and allies" — by abandoning the persisting relationship that sees Muslim lands as strategic and economic assets ready to be plucked, exploited; by not suppressing genuine democracy projects, and foolishly imposing its own; in short, by leaving Muslims alone, so that they may heal their own wounds, resolve their own problems, and shape their own future.

It’s that simple.
– Ramzy Baroud (www.ramzybaroud.net) is an author and editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His work has been published in many newspapers, journals, and anthologies around the world. His latest book is, "The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People’s Struggle" (Pluto Press, London), and his forthcoming book is, "My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story" (Pluto Press, London).

(The Palestine Chronicle is a registered 501(c)3 organization, thus, all donations are tax deductible.)
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