Style vs. Substance

Despite the unusually gloomy weather here in Santa Monica, I feel like summer is already here. I’m done with my book tour, I met two pressing deadlines, and my last class of the quarter at UC Riverside was yesterday. So I’ve had some time to catch up on the news and especially on the coverage of Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo, most of which seemed to me to be encomiums. (And I say this as someone who likes Obama. But liking Obama and agreeing with him on Middle East policy are two different things.)

It simply isn’t true, as I’ve heard some commentators say, that this was the first time that a sitting U.S. president quoted from the Qur’an, invoked Palestine and the plight of the Palestinians, or promised to stop Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories. The main difference, it seems to me, was one of style, not substance. Obama brings his considerable charisma and his compelling life story to this speech. He was exceedingly careful in his choice of words and avoided any direct confrontation. Another advantage for him is the fact that people everywhere, both here in the United States and in the Middle East, are so relieved not to have to listen to the bellicose and idiotic words of George W. Bush anymore. This is why so many people paid so much attention to this speech.

One important test of this new approach, to my mind, is the settlements. Obama has already told Netanyahu that he wants a complete stop to Israeli settlements and that he won’t accept “natural growth” exceptions. If he can do that, then this speech will be remembered as a turning point; if he can’t, then it will go the way of all the speeches by the previous five administrations: nowhere.

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