05/06/2009

The American switch in tone in Cairo

The creation of a Palestinian State, the freeze of settlements, the importance to respect the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty are all themes that were expected. The position taken by President Obama in his speech to the Muslim world in Cairo this Thursday, if it sharply differs from G.W. Bush’s, is not a surprise. The « innovation » does not lie in major initiatives that the President could have run neither.
Therefore how can we explain the almost unanimous qualification of « historical » of this speech?

« The US-Israeli-Arab relationship now looks like an isosceles triangle. » This is how the Israeli newspaper Haaretz has analyzed the consequences of the presidential statements. For Haaretz, B. Obama placed Arabs and Israelis on an equal footing in his speech. Indeed this Middle Eastern « tour » is full of symbols.
First, in terms of American alliances in the region, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have been confirmed in their role as regional pillars after they have been worried of being put on the sidelines by the new U.S. foreign policy. Then, as many analysts exposed, B. Obama spoke of « Palestine » in his speech instead of « future Palestinian State » as it is usually the case. This is not more than a rhetorical turn, but it obviously has a symbolic weight. His firmness on the issue, despite a recent deterioration of US-Israeli relations, is to be highlighted as well as the recognition of the Palestinian situation as “unbearable”. For the first time, the Israeli tropism was moderated and an American president has dared demanding that Israel respect the rights of the Palestinians. The impact of this discourse will only be assessed after the launch of concrete acts but the tone used by the President was marking.
Finally, B. Obama did not forgot that his speech was directed to Muslims and quotations from the Koran, the assurance of America’s respect for Islam and the affirmation that tradition, religion and modernity are not incompatible were also addressed to a part of Westerners who tend to be worried about Islam.

Moreover, this speech is « historical » in that it reflects the American desire to loudly and clearly proclaim a break from the previous administration. « Reassuring » and « restore confidence » were the key-words of this trip. Reassuring the Muslim world by promising that the United States are not at war against Islam but against extremism, but also reassuring Europeans who feared that America could drag them into a « clash of civilizations. » In addressing the Middle East, B. Obama has actually sent a strong signal to the world: the United States is now aware that “the less it will use its power, the more powerful it will be”. However, this new American tone will have to be translated into concrete actions if B. Obama wishes to convince the Arabic populations.

In Cairo, President Obama did not only propose a new vision of peaceful and constructive relations between the United States and the Arab-Muslim world, he also proposed a new American awareness of the duties a « hyper-power » has to fulfill.

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