By John Bourke
Today saw US President Barack Obama make his historic keynote speech to the Muslim world in Cairo.
It covered seven key policy areas affecting the Arab world - violent extremism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nuclear weapons, democracy, religious freedom, women’s rights, and economic development and opportunity
It was both comprehensive and detailed, whether you agree with it’s viewpoints or not, and will probably be considered reasonably even-handed generally by most mainstream pundits.
It criticized those on both sides of the issues – even making admission of his own country’s errors of judgment at times – and asked people to now leave the past in the past and make the effort to work together for a better future.
What could possibly be bad about that you might think and yet within minutes we were already seeing the critics line up to explain to anyone who will listen what was wrong with it.
And whilst a critique and hearing the other side of the story is always valuable, what seems most striking is the stale and jaded tone to much of the frankly just downright unpleasant rhetoric that is being thrown at a man who, no matter what you may think, is at the very least if nothing else trying to make an effort to repair things, listen to others and move forward to better times.
Much of the criticism seems to fall into two main categories, the first of these evidently coming as it so often does from those who simply do not like him and will forever find fault with just about anything that he does no matter what.
Key amongst these will be those on the right who are criticizing him for the unnecessary level of apology that they feel he keeps making for America ’s role in the world.
What is behind this take on things, however, is the deep rooted belief that America simply has done no wrong at all under the last eight years of the previous Bush administration, a perception on things that increasingly only a dwindling number of die-hard conservatives still cling to anyway.
Many of this same group simply do not accept some of the most basics concepts out there in the first place.
Many of them do not agree at all with the view the Muslim religion is one of tolerance. Nor do they accept the notion of a world free of nuclear arms because they believe that they, as the sole remaining super power, should be the only one to have them anyway.
The point then, quite simply, is that for those who think like this - they were never going to find anything agreeable about this speech before it even happened anyway.
In their mind if Barack Obama walks out the front door of The White House and turns to walk to the left then he is wrong because he should have gone to the right and if he turned to go to the right then he would be wrong because he should have gone left.
They will point to how he criticized his own country by references to how Iraq “a war of choice” and how fear and anger post 9-11 led America to “act contrary to our ideals.”
They will question loudly in shrill and indignant voices as to why he seems to always feel the need to put America down.
He is part of what Vice President Dick Cheney referred to as the “blame America ” crowd.
And yet what will go ignored, by the very same token, will be his remarks about the need for governments to “maintain your power through consent, not coercion” and the need to “respect the rights of minorities and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise” and how ultimately “elections alone do not make true democracy.” – comments that many will interpret as a shot at Egypt and it’s sham attempts at democracy.
Similarly so about how “all of us must recognize that education and innovation will be the currency of the 21st century, and in too many Muslim communities there remains under investment in these areas” – arguably also aimed at Saudi Arabia with an estimated 65% of its population under 30 years of age.
Ultimately though at the end of the day (and this may be a major blessing in disguise for the rest of us) those who will react in this way to his speech have little of any worthwhile to contribute to this debate anyway because their views will always be tainted from the outset.
Perhaps somewhat more of a concern however are those who will oppose Obama’s views expressed in this speech because of a difference of perception on how US foreign policy should be carried out.
Their views are at least sparked by a legitimate, thoughtful take on the issues and are entirely worth consideration.
Chief amongst these will be the belief that the war in Iraq was justified, as was the use of torture/enhanced interrogation techniques, and that the President is therefore quite wrong to criticize the US for them or portray them as mistakes that American needs to own up to.
Unfortunately the only problem here is that the American people, whom President Obama represents, have already spoken out on these issues and made it clear how they feel on them.
It’s called the Presidential election of 2008 and Obama won it, and he did so precisely because his views on these things were the same as most Americans nowadays.
It is an unfortunate factof life nonetheless that many out there have simply not yet come to terms with fact that they lost and, whilst they have every right to raise them, they cannot any longer make a valid attack upon an democratically elected leader merely because he is now putting in place the new policies as per what his nation people voted for.
But let us also extend this debate even further in an effort to try to be impartial and objective here.
Much as it serves no useful purpose to criticize merely for the sake of it, it is also true to note here that those who do so on the left of the political arena purely out of a sense of virulent anti-Americanism have really little of worthwhile to contribute to this debate either.
As much as a lot is being said after this speech, it is noticeable that some had written off the whole visit in fact before it even happened.
No one is going to benefit by either group of hard-line political ideologues.
The empty streets of Cairo, noted by a number of reporters, during the President’s speech is clear testimony in itself that people in the Arab world at least wanted to hear what he had to say.
What will come of his good intentions only time will tell. Maybe something. Maybe nothing. For now none of us really know, and clearly the emphasis will be on Obama to back his words up with actions and good deeds.
But he is, after all, in office less than six months of a four year term so to be utterly dismissive of his ability to change things seems entirely premature at this stage.
At the very least, he can be commended for creating a more positive environment overall, through which some sort of dialogue can take place with hopefully meaningful results at the end of it all.
Bear in mind here that this is more than his predecessor managed in eight years.