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How did Obama’s big Cairo stopover play in the corridors of Chicago’s foreign policy intelligentsia?
“I thought it was a really brave speech,” said Middle East expert Dr. Rachel Bronson, vice president of programs and studies at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
For Bronson, a former director of Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, the speech was all about the American president essentially trying to rewrite the terms and framework of the discussion.
It’s Obama’s soft power vs. Bush’s hard, and “it has a better shot in the long-term,” Bronson says. “We have tried to say we won’t deal with undemocratic leaders. What we’ve found is: we can’t sustain that policy and it’s not successful.”
Bronson says that in choosing to address the Israeli-Palestinian issue third, and starting instead with the issue of extremism, Obama was recontextualizing the American perspective. “He didn’t lead by saying this was the all-encompassing issue. I thought that was appropriate.”
She was surprised the president took on Hamas so directly. “He was surprisingly direct and hard-hitting on Hamas in a way he didn’t have to be.” But in so doing, she says, he “charted out a nonviolent political strategy for Palestinians.”
Obama’s litany of historical references to Muslim achievements was a rebuke to Al-Qaeda, Bronson says, which argues that there’s no history between the 600s, the era of Muhammad, and now, and that Bin Laden’s movement needs to recreate that history. “Obama is creating a truer and more helpful narrative that moderates can get behind.”
Obama’s pre-Cairo visit with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was also telling Bronson says. “Presidents have gone, but they don’t go right out of the gate. To go so early and so visibly is extremely unusual.”
The visit conveyed that Obama was going first where the Muslim world was born, but also where the levers of power in the modern Arab world are located. “What’s America’s challenge? Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, followed by Iraq. In all those issues Saudi Arabia is key to getting it right.”
Overall, the Cairo speech was an act of reconciliation, one that recognized that toxic anti-Americanism prevents the U.S. from building coalitions. Obama laid down a marker: It’s no longer “You’re either with us or against us." It's more like "we’re all in this together.”
Previously “Al-Qaeda set the terms,” Bronson says. “Obama is setting up a different conversation. It does what we all said was necessary: it empowers moderates. It makes anti-Americanism less easy. That will reverberate.”