President Obama’s Cairo Speech (After the Iran Deal)


With not a little irony and for a little perspective vis-à-vis arguments regarding the Iran Deal and Middle East politics, I’m reading here Obama’s famous Cairo speech from 2009.  It makes for depressing reading. A rhetorical intervention into the muddied and fracturing politics between “the Arab world” and “the west,” the address preceded by some two years the so-called Arab Spring and the outbreak of civil strife and civil wars, and the ensuing catastrophic loss of human life, the shattering of countries and entire populations. In relative terms, 2009 was a peaceable year after many years of botched military intervention starting with the Iraq War.

Wanting to re-set the dialogue, the President couched the problem between Islam and the West in terms of misperception, fear, and mistrust. The task set was to overcome differences and to forge new beginnings based on mutual respect, shared values, and mutual interests.

About Iranian nuclear intentions and the rise of religious extremism Obama said, “When one nation pursues a nuclear weapon, the risk of nuclear attack rises for all nations. When violent extremists operate in one stretch of mountains, people are endangered across an ocean. And when innocents in Bosnia and Darfur are slaughtered, that is a stain on our collective conscience.”

As the center of gravity has now seemed to shift to Tehran from Cairo, which is now more a mess than it was in 2009, it’s worth asking if the Middle East is any better off today than it was six calendar years ago? The threat of religiously motivated violence has grown more extreme, not less. Has the U.S. done anything to help Iraq forge a better future? Has the future of Iraq been left to Iraqis or to Iran? What’s left of Iraq as a “secure” and “united” “partner”? Replace Bosnia and Dafur with Iraq and now Syria, the “stain” has grown only deeper and bloodier and the region more unstable and dangerous under the President’s watch.

President Obama says that Deal is based on verification, not trust, but that’s specious. Any political deal requires that one trusts both parties that set up the verification system. And on what basis? On the basis of what most recent history is one supposed to trust this Administration to have negotiated a good deal or is prepared to enforce its conventions? The problem many people have with the Iran Deal probably has less to do with the Deal itself and more to do with the Iran regime, whose profile in the region has been activist, and Obama’s larger Middle East policy, which has been characterized by inaction. On the basis of recent precedent and the current state of affairs (for instance the so-called chemical weapons deal in Syria which has done nothing to staunch the violence in that country) there’s no reason to think the region will turn less, not more violent in the near future.

Perhaps the only best thing that can be said about the Iran Deal, which may in fact be the “only alternative” now imaginable, is that the can gets kicked down the road and that a new Administration will be responsible for its implementation and enforcement. Read alongside the Iran Deal, the Cairo Speech and U.S. policy in the region look like sad and hapless things.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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4 Responses to President Obama’s Cairo Speech (After the Iran Deal)

  1. dirk says:

    don’t really get the kicked down the can road as somehow a terrible outcome in that a decade or so of nuclear bomb free Iran seems like a pretty major accomplishment to me, no?

    • zjb says:

      Yes, yes or maybe not. The problem as perceived by critics is that after 8 years, the Iranian regime can develop ballistic weapons and after ten enrich uranium without any limit, reducing the possible breakout time to a bomb to practically zero. I’m not against the Deal per se, but fail to see how this is not a serious problem as long as the regume is constituted the way it is.

      • dmf says:

        but we can always devise/employ new means to respond (we aren’t stopped from doing so by the Deal) as needed and the Prez is going to work against the regime by trying to enlist more support/organization amongst Iran’s neighbors so yes serious problem but not one we are somehow more hamstrung in responding to years out. Now as to what role Israel will play can’t really imagine at this point…

      • zjb says:

        Yes, yes, maybe, but. If the Deal allows unlimited enrichment after year 10-15 then I’m not sure how one responds to that. Also, Pres. Obama has done nothing to date so far except to build support among allies and block Iranian power. If anything, they’ve done everything to give the store to Iran, first in Iraq, then in Syria. The only good thing is that it won’t be Team Obama implementing and enforcing the Deal.

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