President Obama’s Cairo Speech: The Question Left Unanswered – Iran

By June 9, 2009

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 79

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Obama’s speech represents a short-term tactical gain for his policy of engagement. But such ‘soft power’ capital is modest and will almost certainly depreciate. It cannot form the basis for a sound, workable American strategy in the Middle East. On the strategic and policy levels, the speech contained many reassuring themes from Israel’s perspective. However the language he used to describe the roots of the conflict were disturbing, and may only reinforce Arab extremism and thus serve to lessen the long term prospects for peace. Worse still, the speech was vague and lacked resolve regarding the most urgent problem for Israel and America’s other regional allies — the imminent threat of Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

The Strategic Purpose of Obama’s Speech

The strategic purpose of Obama’s speech was to improve America’s standing in Muslim public opinion, especially in the Middle East. He sought to undo the damage to America’s popularity wrought by Muslim perceptions of the policies pursued by George W. Bush.

This approach rests on a belief in ‘soft power’; namely that America’s image is of strategic importance. This is deemed to be especially important in the Middle East because, according to this approach, when America is reasonably popular, it makes it easier for its Arab/Muslim allies to publicly support U.S. policy, while simultaneously lessening the threat that anti-American forces pose to these allies.

Obama’s Cairo speech was designed to drive a wedge between the Muslim/Arab centre and the radicals who are deeply and unequivocally anti-American. The aim was to put the radicals on the rhetorical back foot and therefore to make it harder for them to recruit popular support for their anti-American agenda.

To this end he sought to deny the radicals a basis for demonizing the US by making many positive statements regarding Islam and some critical comments about past American policies. For the same reason, Obama focused the contents of his speech on messages which opinion polls suggest the Muslim/Arab centre can live with, but to which the radicals are ideologically opposed. Even the issue of Holocaust denial can be said to be relevant here, as this issue has played a role in the Iranian elections, with reformists charging that Ahmadinejad’s stance is wrong and does great damage to Iran’s foreign relations.

The Strategic Limitations of the Obama Speech

In the immediate aftermath, judging by the responses in the Muslim world, the speech can be said to have been a qualified tactical success. Many welcomed the speech, while radical critics tended to either focus on what was not said, or to state that Obama would be judged not by his words but by his deeds.

Yet however well he speaks, no American President has the sustained capability to inflict critical damage to the culture of anti-Americanism in the Middle East. Yes, the speech bought the U.S. and its regional allies some political capital. But the value of that capital is modest and it will almost certainly depreciate.

In a one-off speech Obama can control the message, but in general the discourse in the Middle East is framed in radical terms, even in instances when the media is controlled by pragmatic pro-American dictatorships. The presentation of American policy is deliberately skewed and U.S. actions like those which helped Muslims in Bosnia are largely ignored. Well chosen American words and actions can sometimes moderate the level of anti-Americanism for a time, but they cannot undermine it because anti-Americanism is primarily the result of internal regional forces and not American deeds. Consequently, by engaging on these terms, it is the U.S. that is likely to spend most of the time on the rhetorical back foot.

More fundamentally, it is vital to recognize the strategic limitations of soft power, which is far too fragile to form the cornerstone of a U.S. regional strategy. Any attempt to implement such a strategy will shake the foundations of the U.S. position in the region, which depends first and foremost on the maintenance of a pro-American balance of ‘hard’ power in the region. In a speech Obama can drive a wedge between radicals and pragmatists, but in reality the radicals have the ability to force the U.S. to make difficult choices. Nowhere is this clearer than regarding Iran.

Here, it was notable that Obama stopped short of stating directly that Iran must not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons. No doubt, this omission assisted U.S. ‘soft power’ since most Muslim Arabs do not think an Iranian bomb is a threat. However, most of the governments that constitute America’s Muslim Arab allies do think that an Iranian bomb represents a major threat. So at some point, the U.S. will have to decide between shoring up its hard power and reinforcing its soft power. Popularity and legitimacy may be useful, but they cannot defend you against nuclear weapons.

The Strategic Implications of Obama’s Speech for Israel

The Good News

In some key respects Obama’s speech was reassuring for Israel. First, it was notable that Obama opened the section of his speech that dealt with the Arab-Israeli conflict by underlining that the American commitment to Israel is “unbreakable”. The blunt and unequivocal nature of this statement left no room for doubt. Given that the major cause of moderation in the Arab world is a perception that Israel cannot be destroyed, restating this commitment is of strategic significance.

Second, there was Obama’s subtle message regarding America’s continued acceptance of Israel’s nuclear deterrent. Obama referred to the Iranian nuclear program as a threat to regional stability. He then obliquely referred to the charge that the U.S has a double standard by focusing on Iran’s nuclear ambitions while overlooking Israel’s nuclear weapons. His response to this charge was to state that America was committed to seek a world in which no nations hold nuclear weapons. In other words, the Israeli nuclear program is not linked to the Iranian nuclear program, but rather part of a (vague, long- standing Democratic party) aspiration to free the entire world of nuclear weapons.

Third, Obama did not make the Palestinian problem or the settlements the lynch pin of American strategy. Of course, one issue for the Netanyahu government will be Obama’s insistence that Israel commit to the ultimate creation of a Palestinian state. But this is less of an issue than most realize, Netanyahu having stated previously that he would be willing to accept such a state on certain conditions.

More importantly, Obama reaffirmed some important positions on the peace process that dovetail with Israel’s basic interests, for example that the U.S. will not seek to impose a permanent status settlement. He also reaffirmed that the U.S. would not admit Hamas into the diplomatic process until it recognizes Israel, renounces violence and accepts previous agreements. Although Obama did not use the term ‘terrorism’, he drew the same distinction as G.W. Bush between the legitimate Palestinian goal of self-determination and the illegitimate use of violence to achieve that goal.

Even on the settlements issue, there was no mention of ‘natural growth’ but rather opposition to continued Israeli settlements under the rubric of parties’ Road Map obligations, which the Netanyahu government has already reaffirmed publicly. This formulation leaves room for maneuver for the Netanyahu government. The key to avoiding a crisis over settlements is more likely to lie in Israel actually implementing its prior commitments rather than in any bilateral understanding over what constitutes ‘natural growth’. Even if Israel’s implementation falls short, a crisis might be avoided if the administration gets distracted by more pressing problems in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan or Pakistan.

Aside from this, Obama also made clear demands of the Arab side, telling them that Holocaust denial, anti-Semitism and incitement against Israel are a block on peace and that the Arab peace initiative, while positive, did not go far enough to serve as a basis for negotiation.

The Bad News

There were two troubling aspects of the speech. The longer-term problem concerns Obama’s language on the Arab-Israeli conflict, which serves to make peace even more distant. Obama cast Israel’s legitimacy in humanitarian terms – the Holocaust – while referring to the Palestinian problem as having been caused by their displacement in the wake of Israel’s creation.

Such language plays straight into Palestinian gripes that they paid the price for Europe’s sins by having an alien colonialist entity thrust upon them. It also absolves them of any responsibility for their own fate, namely the fact that they rejected the 1947 UN partition plan and violently sought to prevent the creation of Israel. Obama thus reinforced attitudes which are inimical to the development of legitimacy in the Muslim and Arab world for a real lasting peace with Israel. At the very least he could have avoided the language on displacement and referred to the deep historical and religious connection of the Jewish people to the land. If and when Obama visits Israel, he will have the opportunity to correct matters.

Second, and of far more immediate concern was the lack of clarity regarding the Iranian nuclear program. Here Obama’s speech was not at all reassuring. As already noted, the goal of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons was not stated explicitly. Neither was there mention of any deadlines concerning the US-Iranian dialogue. If anything, the tone of the speech seemed to be in line with a policy of containing a nuclear Iran.

So for all the positive elements in Obama’s speech, it did not reveal a clear strategy for protecting America’ key interests in the region. Specifically, it left one big question unanswered – Iran. Iran is the cardinal issue for Israel, the U.S. and its other allies in the Middle East. Over the next 18 months difficult choices will have to be made. Not even the best speech in the world can change that.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Littauer Foundation

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Prof. Jonathan Rynhold
Prof. Jonathan Rynhold

Dr. Jonathan Rynhold, a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, is a senior lecturer of political studies at Bar-Ilan University, and director of its Argov Center for the Study of Israel and the Jewish People. Email: [email protected]