President Barack Obama in Egypt: “A New Beginning” Through a Channeling of JFK

–Richard E. Vatz

Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo, Egypt, was tentatively titled (and called for) “A New Beginning” in American-Muslim relations. His plea echoed his rhetorical hero John F. Kennedy’s call for such generally for America in the latter’s Inaugural forty-eight plus years ago. In addition President Obama’s speech in Egypt today, calling for a mutual respect and understanding of American and Muslim mutual interest, but realizing that such perceptual changes would not occur overnight, was reminiscent of President Kennedy’s American University Address speech in 1963 in which he called for a new mutual understanding between the Soviet Union and the United States.

President Obama’s speech established personal identification between America’s new president and the Muslim world, beginning with his opening of “assalaamu alaykum: “May the peace (of Allah or God) be upon you.”

He honored some of the history of Islam’s religious tolerance and racial equality. He avoided making the case against Islamic countries’ denial of freedom and incarceration of dissidents.

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He warned against stereotypes of and on both sides, but throughout gave no rhetorical ground to Islamic extremists, who, he noted pointedly, have killed mostly Muslims. He gave up too much ground, in this observer’s opinion, when he implied a false equality between the Palestinian resentment of the creation of Israel and the relentless attacks and Israeli sovereignty-denying of Hamas.

President Obama indirectly but unmistakably attacked the presidency of Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and its “ignorant” Holocaust denial – perhaps a subtle way to influence that election? Good.

The key question left by the mostly excellent address is what will the measureable consequences be? The speech engendered a harsh response from Iran supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who vowed in a speech before President Obama’s (at a commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who spawned Iran’s 1979 anti-American Islamic revolution ) that “People of the Middle East, the Muslim region and North Africa…hate America from the bottom of their heart…”

Just as the dumb cliché falsely argues that “it takes two to make a fight,” American cannot unilaterally make peace with Iran, al Qaeda and/or North Korea. If President Obama’s “new beginning” makes a measurable difference in the behavior of those who, like Hamas, will not even recognize Israel or those, like Iran, who insist on acquiring nuclear weapons, a one-sided rapprochement will be insufficient.

Unlike President Kennedy, some of President Obama’s “extremists” are so nihilistic that he doesn’t have the luxury of even speculating that their ultimate goals and wishes are the same as ours. Even with the Soviets it took a Ronald Reagan to stand up to their war preparations to allow for the wining of the cold war.

Overall, however: with some caveats regarding too much false self-abnegation, President Obama’s address is a good, sincere test of our adversaries’ desire to forge “a new beginning” of peace.

–Professor Vatz teaches political rhetoric at Towson University

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