America could be witnessing a seminal moment in international relations. Since President Obama's June 4 speech in Cairo, the Middle East has seen sweeping political change in Lebanon, where a pro-western faction defeated the heavily-favored representatives of Hezbollah, and in Iran, where the world is now bearing witness to the state's largest political uprising since the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
Obama's Cairo speech, like his Philadelphia speech on race, portrayed an America that is not simply tolerant of difference, but embraces it. His speech was both lofty in its idealistic rhetoric and firmly grounded in realism. Obama, like no America leader I have seen in my (short) lifetime, possesses an uncanny ability to speak to disparate groups of individuals and the world community as a whole simultaneously. In Cairo, President Obama was able to speak to the concerns of Palestinians and Israelis, Christian and Muslim-Americans, Iraqi and Afghani citizens, and American service members alike. More important, the Cairo speech illustrated that the United States seeks a "broader engagement" with the Middle Eastern community.
Among other things, President Obama's Cairo speech emphasized common principles between disparate peoples. He emphasized the need to listen and the need to seek common ground when attacking problems. President Obama sought to speak the truth and, indeed, he did just that. He preached tolerance and understanding. He stressed his duty, as America's leader, to refute negative stereotypes imposed on the Muslim community in the aftermath of September 11 and contemporaneously underscored that Americans, like Muslims, do not fit crude stereotypes. President Obama accentuated that "America is not a self-interested empire" (at least most of the time). The president poignantly noted that, "[w]ords alone cannot meet the needs of our people." Words must be combined with bold action. However, expression can change perception, inciting change which, in turn, can lead to bolder, more positive action.
In Cairo, President Obama approached America's relationship with the Middle East with an unexpected level of intellectual honesty that is seen in few statesmen these days. He treated us as adults and did not oversimplify the problems we face or the concerns we have. Obama emphatically denied the justness of terrorism in all of its forms. He highlighted that while the fear and anger that the events of 9/11 elicited from Americans was understandable, the use of torture in response to those harrowing events was not. Facing an even more shocking bout of intellectual honesty, the American president acknowledged that the Palestinian people have suffered for sixty years and lived in a situation that he described as "intolerable." He recognized that Israelis and Palestinians both have legitimate claims to their own political, social, and cultural self-determination. Meeting his critics head on: President Obama spoke of Palestine as though it were a legitimate political entity, stating that:
the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. . . . It is time for these settlements to stop. . . . Just as it devastates Palestinian families, the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel's security; neither does the continuing lack of opportunity in the West Bank. Progress in the daily lives of the Palestinian people must be a critical part of a road to peace, and Israel must take concrete steps to enable such progress. . . .
America will align our policies with those who pursue peace, and we will say in public what we say in private to Israelis and Palestinians and Arabs. We cannot impose peace. But privately, many Muslims recognize that Israel will not go away. Likewise, many Israelis recognize the need for a Palestinian state.
It is time for us to act on what everyone knows to be true. Too many tears have been shed. Too much blood has been shed. All of us have a responsibility to work for the day when the mothers of Israelis and Palestinians can see their children grow up without fear; when the Holy Land of the three great faiths is the place of peace that God intended it to be; when Jerusalem is a secure and lasting home for Jews and Christians and Muslims, and a place for all of the children of Abraham to mingle peacefully together as in the story of Isra -- as in the story of Isra, when Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed, peace be upon them, joined in prayer.
On top of that, President Obama is, to my knowledge, the first American president to publicly admit, before a Middle Eastern audience, to the U.S.'s role in overthrowing the democratically-elected government of Mohammed Mosaddeq in 1953. The speech gave me chills (though the feeling passed quickly--I do try to avoid falling prey to my emotions).
Now some contend that the protests in Iran are a direct result of Obama's "extending an open hand" to the Middle East, but I am not so sure; I firmly believe that President Obama's conduct did not create this desire for change felt by young Iranians (though the president's actions probably have intensified that desire). The true meaning of Iran's post-election protests is unclear, and will remain so, to American audiences. Indeed, it is far easier to state what the protest does not mean. Protest does not mean that the Iranian Government will moderate its antagonism of the West. Protest does not mean that Iran will become a democracy in the foreseeable future. And protest does not mean that the Iranian State will cease to be a destabilizing force in the Middle East for as long as the current regime controls the country. The highest turnout for an election in Iran's history (turnout numbers that put Americans to shame mind you) does not mean that Iran will stop pursuing nuclear weapons or that the State will discontinue its support of terrorism.
President Obama, in speaking of Iran's historic turnout, noted that Iran's election meant that change could be possible. Yet it is clear to me that this election does more than indicate the possibility of change; it demonstrates that change is already a reality in the Middle East. It marks a step forward for the Iranian people, if not one for their government.
In the outrage over the rigging of the Iranian election and the consequential (s)election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the same vigor is observed in Iran's youth that was palpable in our youth throughout the 2008 presidential elections. This youth movement in Iran, more than anything else, is dispelling the notion that Iranians collectively harbor ill-will toward Americans and counters the thought that Middle Eastern Muslims in general, and Iranians specifically, find Western liberalism repugnant.
Despite the Revolutionary Guard's and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's best efforts to intimidate dissenters through force and acts of violence, the protesters have persistently voiced their disapproval, through peaceful means, of the State's proclamation that Ahmadinejad resoundingly won reelection, notwithstanding strong evidence that likely demonstrates that he did not.
Opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi continues to call for protest across the Iranian countryside and his supporters have responded accordingly. Mousavi's supporters seem resolute in the desire to have their votes mean something; that is, for their votes to count.