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More Than Words

Can Obama accomplish the ambitious goals he laid out in today's speech?

Barack Obama has two imminent opportunities to test the effectiveness of his speech in Cairo today: Will it help the more moderate candidates win in next week's Lebanon election? The week after, will it help in transforming Iranian public opinion and make Iranians more prone to oust their radical president? Speeches, unlike literature, should not be judged as prose or poetry--but with Obama, we sometimes tend to forget that. The eloquence with which he conveys his message is almost always numbingly beautiful. Words, however, will not suffice; they will only be remembered as significant if they have consequences. Ronald Reagan's "tear down this wall" speech was remarkable when it was delivered, and was much more so when the wall was indeed torn down.

Obama's Cairo speech had a misleading quality to it. The president was speaking the rhetoric of Reagan, while intending to execute the policy of George H. W. Bush. Conveying the image of an emotional, forthcoming, and understanding bridge-builder, he is actually a cautious and calculated leader, wanting to scale down America's foreign policy--back to the days when "interests" were king, not "ideologies." Obama is a new type of the old "realist." He is a realist with feelings--one that can naturally combine a call for halting Iran's nuclear weapons because of "America’s interests" (and others') with his personal story of "an African-American with the name Barack Hussein Obama."

The president didn't shy away from speaking about his "commitment ... to governments that reflect the will of the people"--the kind of government most Muslim-majority countries do not have. This is not unprecedented for a realist: George H.W Bush, in his inaugural address, also didn't shy away from saying, "We know what works: Freedom works. We know what's right: Freedom is right." But today's speech, like every speech, will be judged according to following deeds. And all indications are that Obama will be pursuing a path more similar to the one of the freedom-loving first Bush than to the one pursued by the freedom-loving second Bush.

The specific details the president offered were scarce. He said, for example, that the United States "will support a secure and united Iraq as a partner, and never as a patron," but didn't say what happens in case the American withdrawal of forces leaves an Iraq that isn't secure or united. He laid out the reasons for which it will be better for the region and the world if Iranians decide to give up on their nuclear military program, but refrained from threats, or from offering a path through which such goal can be achieved. In fact, the only aggressive message conveyed in the part dedicated to Iran actually seemed aimed at Israel: "No single nation should pick and choose which nations hold nuclear weapons. That is why I strongly reaffirmed America’s commitment to seek a world in which no nations hold nuclear weapons." This might mean future American pressure on Israel to disarm, as part of the deal the Obama team will be seeking with Tehran later this month.

Israel was anxiously waiting the speech, following two weeks of contentious public statements related to settlement building. On this topic, Obama hasn't added more fuel to the fire. But it was interesting to note how the Arab crowd cheered enthusiastically when he called for settlement freeze and the easing of restrictions on Palestinians, and sat silently, solemnly when he said that denying the holocaust was "baseless, ignorant, and hateful".

The president also said that the United States "cannot impose peace." That is one humble statement from a president who seemed to imply in recent weeks that this is exactly what the United States will be trying to do. Yesterday, summing up his visit to Washington, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak boldly criticized recent demands by the Obama team: "You have to be attached to facts of life," he said. "You can not expect the unreasonable to happen."

In Cairo, Obama had to reach for the sky, and to expect the unlikely-to-happen; one can't go all the way to Egypt with the modest goal of stating the reasonable and the practical. Thus, two real questions should be asked as this speech is already a deed of the past. One is quite obvious: Will the Arab and Muslim world believe Obama? Most Americans, according to a Gallup poll published yesterday, remain skeptical. But it will be the Arab response that will determine the answer to this first question.

The second question, though, is no less important, and it is a question to which an answer will emerge only with time, and action: Does Obama know not just how to say the right words, but also how to achieve all, or even a handful of, the goals he has so beautifully and expressively laid out today?

Shmuel Rosner is an editor and columnist based in Tel Aviv. He blogs daily at Rosner's Domain.

By Shmuel Rosner