Obama in Cairo: something old, something new

His speech to Muslims marks a “new beginning” based on tried-and-true values.

President Obama billed his Cairo speech to the Muslim world as a "new beginning." In some important ways, it did signal a fresh start. But there's also no getting around the "old" work that needs to be done or the abiding principles that must guide that work.

Mr. Obama's speech had almost the feel of an inaugural address – historic sweep, lofty idealism, American vision, and a call to action, but aimed at an audience of more than a billion Muslims.

His very biography lends a fresh credibility to ideas and policies that are actually not so fresh. It's hard to imagine any of his predecessors, for instance, quoting and referencing the Koran so extensively and being so enthusiastically applauded for it.

Obama attempted to blow away the cobwebs of blame and finger-pointing that have collected on the Middle East peace process. "Privately, many Muslims recognize that Israel will not go away. Likewise, many Israelis recognize the need for a Palestinian state. It is time for us to act on what everyone knows to be true," he said.

That includes the United States, which needs to reclaim its role as an honest broker, including applying pressure to Israel that it has been reluctant to use in the past.

To an audience hungry for action and not just words, the president threw out several new initiatives to boost education, health, and the economy in Muslim nations. But his bigger moves are on the strategic level: a troop surge in Afghanistan, an aid surge in Pakistan, planned withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq, and a diplomatic overture to Iran.

Those indeed mark a "new beginning," but much of his speech actually rested on longstanding US policy positions and values. On Iran: nuclear power is fine; nuclear weapons are not. On Israel and the Palestinians: Washington still stands behind a two-state solution. Neither did Obama shrink from using the "D" word (democracy), as some thought he might.

Like his predecessor, Obama pointed to the need for reform in the Muslim world. Only religious tolerance, rule of law, equal opportunity for women, and respect for minorities will lead to lasting prosperity and peace. Governments, he said, must maintain power "through consent, not coercion." He added: "Elections alone do not make true democracy" (target audiences for that comment: Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran).

Obama concluded his speech with the most ancient policy of all: "There's one rule that lies at the heart of every religion – that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us."

It was a point that drew applause, which is perhaps the most encouraging sign because it is, at bottom, the only way to resolve the problems of the Middle East and to bridge the Western-Muslim divide.

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