By Joel Wendland
President Obama's speech in Cairo today will quite possibly be remembered in the future in ways not unlike those famous speeches by Kennedy and Reagan in Berlin. But while those speeches directly inflamed the Cold War and justified an irrational nuclear policy and endless confrontations with smaller nations, Obama's speech has the potential to be a starting marker for reducing hostility, bringing to an end the wars overtly launched by the previous president against Muslims and rethinking the role and presence of the US a military power in that part of the world.
There is potential.
It was no small thing that Pres. Obama acknowledged a cultural and civilizational debt the world owes to Islam; its scientific and cultural achievements vastly influenced Europe and the surrounding continents. In addition, Obama said, "Islam has always been a part of America's story." He proceeded to speak to and elevate the struggles of Muslim Americans to be a part of this country. He talked about the efforts of Muslims to expand democracy in this country and the contributions to American life.
He said, "Now, much has been made of the fact that an African American with the name Barack Hussein Obama could be elected President. But my personal story is not so unique. The dream of opportunity for all people has not come true for everyone in America, but its promise exists for all who come to our shores – and that includes nearly 7 million American Muslims in our country today who, by the way, enjoy incomes and educational levels that are higher than the American average."
Muslims in American are typically regarded as "other." Even supporters of the president during the election campaign often saw the right-wing echo chamber's reference to Obama as a Muslim as a "slur" – not to mention the vitriol and filth spewed on Msulims by Oabam's right-wing opponents. And when has any American president sought to identify himself that closely with a group of Americans so ostracized by the mainstream?
While Obama aimed these comments at convincing others around the world that "America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire," the message should be clear to us here at home: let us, too, stop viewing Muslims through the lens of crude stereotypes.
I might be gushing, but this kind of language invokes pride in the possibility of America. I know you'll say my words smack of chauvinism. But I think America, like every other country, has the potential to live up to ideals of equality – and remember "freedom" means nothing without equality – we claim to espouse. We saw sparks of that potential in President Obama's words.
But that is not all. We heard the president use words handily and easily that ordinary working-class people steeped in the movement for liberation and progress here have always revered; words like civil rights, struggle, equality and more. And they were not used the same way the intellectually-challenged patrician Bush threw them around with disdainful smirks, thinly veiling a crusade against the Islamic world.
On the question of Iraq, Pres. Obama described the Bush administration's decision to invade as a "war of choice." He added, "I have made it clear to the Iraqi people that we pursue no bases, and no claim on their territory or resources. Iraq's sovereignty is its own. And that's why I ordered the removal of our combat brigades by next August. That is why we will honor our agreement with Iraq's democratically elected government to remove combat troops from Iraqi cities by July, and to remove all of our troops from Iraq by 2012."
On Afghanistan, it is clear that the peace movement has a ways to go before the US will end its military involvement in that conflict. We must continue to push for a timetable for withdrawal, a shift in priorities to locally controlled humanitarian aid, and more.
On the Israeli-Palestinian question, Pres. Obama said things US presidents never say and turned a page on the past. He reiterated, rightly, that the US has "strong bonds with Israel" and emphasized this country's commitment to the continued existence and security of Israel.
At the same time, he recognized Palestinians as real humans suffering humiliation and other outrages under "occupation," rather than as a mass of people stereotyped as terrorists and refused a shared status with the rest of humanity. Now this is an important point because it actually acknowledged the harm Israel as the occupying power has inflicted on Palestinians.
Still further, Obama said, "America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own." He then brought the national aims of both the Palestinian people and Israel into a parallel which no American president has done before, describing them as "two peoples with legitimate aspirations, each with a painful history that makes compromise elusive."
The use of the term "legitimate" is significant because it means that Obama views as "legal" under international standards the aspirations for a Palestinian state and Israeli security.
In other words, Pres. Obama clearly equated the Israeli aspiration for peace and security with the Palestinian aspiration for a sovereign state, while denouncing violence, terror, militaristic tactics and outrages that cause humiliation and pain by all sides.
The solution: "The only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security."
And still further, "Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel's right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine's. The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop."
Here again, the use of the word legitimacy marks the expansion of settlements as illegal.
And yet again, "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."
To Iran, Pres. Obama reiterated his commitment to a negotiated path forward.
On the issue of nuclear weapons: "No single nation should pick and choose which nation holds nuclear weapons. And that's why I strongly reaffirmed America's commitment to seek a world in which no nations hold nuclear weapons."
Then, Obama broke with the failed Bush doctrine: "No system of government can or should be imposed by one nation on any other."
After explaining his administration's desire to expand cooperative relationships in scientific research, education, medicine, technology and economic development, Obama put forward what I think could be called the Obama doctrine: "The question is whether we spend that time focused on what pushes us apart, or whether we commit ourselves to an effort – a sustained effort – to find common ground, to focus on the future we seek for our children, and to respect the dignity of all human beings."
Instead of standing at a wall that divided people and identifying himself with the forces of capitalism with a right to wage nuclear war and wars against people on the other side of the planet suspected of giving in to the communists, like Kennedy and Reagan did, Obama identified himself with all humans as equals, with equal rights to dignity, peace and a common future.
When it comes to divisions by nation, race, gender or religion that are fostered and provoked and used by people like Bush or Bin Laden to purse a violent agenda, Obama's doctrine of common ground should be the standard for bridging differences, achieving peace, and saving humanity from its worst possibilities.
Those of us who see the world, especially under capitalism, systemically divided by class will pause at these words. We must concur with the the claim for common humanity and equality. It is a basic tenet of the socialist doctrine.
But not all ground is common, and it is class that makes that a reality. There are very real and likely unbridgeable differences that cause some capitalists to lick their lips and ready their money belts when a jingoist president calls for a crusade on Muslim people. Such differences also prompt some capitalists to resist to the end the expansion of public health care to all Americans, or the right to organize unions to all workers, or the imposition of penalties on the corporations that are poisoning our air and water.
That is why struggle, non-violent but militant, peaceful but relentless, is still our class duty. And it is equally righteous for us to use the Obama doctrine of equality as our own rallying cry in that struggle.