This is a bit counterintuitive. But despite this being a speech and not policy, which is to say words and not deeds, I was left with the thought that the new beginning of President Barack Obama’s address in Cairo essentially closes the era of faith and opens the era of works. I mean that with regard to his own personal trajectory, in the sense that the listening and talking phase is over. Now it’s time to deliver.
But I also mean it with regard to our broader national trajectory. By basing his appeal — on America’s behalf — on an unvarnished, worldly honesty, as opposed to a mythic, manifest destiny, he has returned America — and along with it, the world’s three dominant religions — to the confines of history.
And I say that as a skeptic, who just yesterday was joking that this guy’s speeches have taken on the aura of the Pope’s liturgical pronouncements.
But the fact is, his speeches to date have set out a coherent formulation of America’s role in the world. And it amounts to an honest taking of inventory, based on accepting responsibility for past failures, while recognizing our greatness as a nation and all the contributions we have made. But most of all, the speeches, when taken together, have been a no-nonsense, “roll up your sleeves and get the job done” call to work.
And when you cut through the rhetoric, today’s was no different.Whether or not the result will be successful policy is far fromguaranteed, and far from entirely under his control.
It’s natural that many will hold that out as a shortcoming. And given the conflicting demands from all the various audiences, there was no way he could satisy everybody. As a case in point, American progressives were calling on him to emphasize democracy promotion, while Egyptian reformers were telling him to mind his own business.
But what he did accomplish was to acknowledge our share of historical responsibility, while setting the table for an honest approach to tackling the tough issues. But to do that, we need to get away from ideology, if ideology serves to separate us. Here we are, he seemed to say, all of us trapped together by — and within — history. And only by working together can we build a way out.
A lot will now depend on how well he backs that up with convincing demonstrations of American willingness to accomodate. A lot, too, will depend on tough determinations of when not to accomodate, and what the consequences of non-cooperation will be for those who don’t go along. But for me, today was a good rhetorical flourish to start the job off.