A Quaker Lobby in the Public Interest
FCNL's Analysis of President Obama's Speech in CairoPresident Obama's New Beginning with the Muslim World
By Jim Fine, FCNL Legislative Secretary
President Obama's speech in Cairo today was an eloquent and compelling call for a new beginning and reconciliation with Muslims around the world. He demonstrated a sound grasp of Islamic sensibilities. It was also a public declaration that signals to the U.S. Congress and public that the administration is committing all of the power of the presidency to achieving an equitable two-state solution of the Israel-Palestine conflict and a resolution of the nuclear dispute with Iran that includes recognition of Iran's right to a peaceful nuclear program.
The speech makes clear that the administration intends to implement the policies that Barack Obama first embraced as a senator in January 2007 when he introduced a bill to implement the recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group Report that was co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Congressman Lee Hamilton.
The Baker-Hamilton report was about far more than the Iraq war. It stressed the need for the U.S. to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict and attempt to establish normal relations with Syria and Iran, as well as to withdraw from Iraq, in order to secure U.S. interests in the Middle East. Obama was one of the few Democrats or Republicans who endorsed the report at the time, although it came with a bipartisan pedigree and represented the views of a large part of the U.S. foreign policy establishment. The report's recommendations on both the Israel-Palestine conflict and Iran represented major challenges to a status quo with strong domestic political support, and many in Congress keep their distance. President Obama's Cairo speech confirms that his administration has taken on the domestic political challenges of changing the status quo.
Public and congressional support for the administration's Israel-Palestine and Iran diplomacy will be essential for success. As a first step in Israel-Palestinian peacemaking, the president reiterated his call for a freeze on Israeli settlement construction in the occupied Palestinian territories. He also made an impassioned call-citing the experience of the U.S. civil rights movement and the struggles for justice in South Africa, and Indonesia-for Palestinians and others to reject violence. The prospects that his careful affirmation of both Israeli and Palestinian rights will win support on Capitol Hill are reasonably good. Many in Congress, including leading Jewish members, have expressed opposition to Israel's continuing settlement construction and have affirmed that a two-state Israeli-Palestinian agreement would serve Israeli as well as Palestinian and U.S. interests.
On Iran, the president recognized that decades of mistrust will not be easy to overcome, and he explicitly singled out the U.S. support for the overthrow of Iran's elected leader in the 1950s and the Iranian seizure of U.S. hostages in 1979. The president made clear the U.S. determination to prevent a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
At the same time, the president affirmed that "any nation - including Iran - should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty." His message was directed as much to a U.S. audience as to Iran.
Congressional acceptance of an agreement with Iran that keeps in place the architecture to prevent a nuclear arms race while accepting the right of Iran to develop a civilian nuclear program subject to strict safeguards will be essential to the president succeeding in building a new U.S. relationship with the region. Regrettably, Congress isn't there yet. On this, as on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking issues, Congress will need to hear strong grassroots support if it is not to become an obstacle to the administration's effort to advance U.S. and regional interests by a new beginning with the Muslim world.