Obama's Cairo Speech Is Nice, but Misses the Point

07/05/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

President Obama's speech in Cairo focused on the themes of brotherhood and bridging the divide between the west and Muslim world. Obama explained away the agony of the occupied by essentially arguing that all individuals resisting or angered by American occupation are radical Muslims, who think the west is modern and scary. So while it's nice that we finally have a president that can pronounce "As-Salāmu `Alaykum," and understands Middle Eastern history, Obama misses the point in the very same way the Bush administration kept missing the point for eight years.

Certainly, there is a small percentage of the population that has adopted radical Islam, but the majority of Muslims are moderate. Their only problem with the west is that America has been occupying or bombing large swaths of the Middle East. They're not interested in our President's oratory skills. They want Americans troops off their land.

"No single speech can eradicate years of mistrust, nor can I answer in the time that I have all the complex questions that brought us to this point," Obama said, and he's right. No single speech, nor any subsequent series of pretty speeches are the solution the occupied are looking for. Afghanis and Iraqis aren't looking for speeches about religion. While it's nice that the President reassured all of us that these military occupations aren't holy wars, they are still military occupations in which untold numbers of women, children, and innocent men will die.

Before Obama's speech, the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said that America was "deeply hated" and only action, not "slogans," could change that. Even as he spoke about healing these wounds, Obama defended his decision to escalate the troops presence in Afghanistan, and failed to apologize to the Iraqis for the damage inflicted upon their country. Surrounding these notions with some window dressing about all religions being part of the same rainbow won't fool the Iraqis and Afghanis who have lost so much.

On a positive note, president Obama did acknowledge that Palestinians face a similar struggle to the one African-Americans faced during the civil rights movement, and the role played by the United States in the 1953 Iranian coup. This confessional President, who humbly accepted America's wrongs, while siding with the oppressed (but falling short of demanding Israel withdraw from Palestinian territory) seemed more like the Barack Obama whose supporters truly thought he would bring change to America. But those two concessions fail to recognize the larger issue: America is hated not for her iPods and mega-malls, but for her soldiers who occupy sovereign countries.

Obama unnecessarily elevated the conversation to a theological debate when it belongs in the world of (his favorite word) pragmatism. "Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire," Obama reassured countries currently occupied by American forces. A good way to break that "unfair American stereotype" would be to withdraw our forces. An immediate withdrawal of all US troops would not bring peace overnight, but it would place the United States and the Muslim world on the path toward reconciliation.

Cross-posted from Allison Kilkenny's blog. Also available on Facebook and Twitter.