I thought it was superb — one of his best speeches ever. It had all the usual hallmarks of an Obama speech: soaring language, emphasis on themes of unity, interconnectivity, and mutual respect. It laid out a grand vision for what Obama called “a new beginning,” and identified seven specific “sources of tension” that must be addressed in order to realize that overall vision: violent extremism “in all of its forms,” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how it affects the rest of the Arab world, nuclear weapons, democracy, religious freedom, women’s rights, and economic development.
Within each of these areas, Obama consistently rejected the previous administration’s simple-minded frame of a good versus evil world in which the United States, in its role as the avatar of good, fights the evil of Islamic extremism with the cooperation — willing if possible, compelled by force if necessary — of the rest of the planet.
It’s really rather breathtaking to have a president who understands historical context — as when he spoke about U.S. support for Israel, and modern Israel’s roots in the Holocaust (emphasis mine):
America’s strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable. It is based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.
Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust. Tomorrow, I will visit Buchenwald, which was part of a network of camps where Jews were enslaved, tortured, shot and gassed to death by the Third Reich. Six million Jews were killed – more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, ignorant, and hateful. Threatening Israel with destruction – or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews – is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.
On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations – large and small – that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.
For decades, there has been a stalemate: two peoples with legitimate aspirations, each with a painful history that makes compromise elusive. It is easy to point fingers – for Palestinians to point to the displacement brought by Israel’s founding, and for Israelis to point to the constant hostility and attacks throughout its history from within its borders as well as beyond. But if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth: the only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.
An even more stunning example came when the president turned to the next source of tension — nuclear weapons, and specifically Iran (emphasis mine):
This issue has been a source of tension between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran. For many years, Iran has defined itself in part by its opposition to my country, and there is indeed a tumultuous history between us. In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically-elected Iranian government. Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has played a role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians. This history is well known. Rather than remain trapped in the past, I have made it clear to Iran’s leaders and people that my country is prepared to move forward. The question, now, is not what Iran is against, but rather what future it wants to build.
It will be hard to overcome decades of mistrust, but we will proceed with courage, rectitude and resolve. There will be many issues to discuss between our two countries, and we are willing to move forward without preconditions on the basis of mutual respect. But it is clear to all concerned that when it comes to nuclear weapons, we have reached a decisive point. This is not simply about America’s interests. It is about preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that could lead this region and the world down a hugely dangerous path.
An out-loud acknowledgment of the CIA’s role in overthrowing the democratically elected and hugely popular Mohammad Mossadegh? What president has done that before? That is huge.
But the part that truly moved me, almost to tears, was the very end:
We have the power to make the world we seek, but only if we have the courage to make a new beginning, keeping in mind what has been written.
The Holy Koran tells us, “O mankind! We have created you male and a female; and we have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another.”
The Talmud tells us: “The whole of the Torah is for the purpose of promoting peace.”
The Holy Bible tells us, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”
The people of the world can live together in peace. We know that is God’s vision. Now, that must be our work here on Earth. Thank you. And may God’s peace be upon you.