07/03/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama, Cairo and Institutionalizing Change

I've been thinking a lot about institutions. No, not the kind of institution necessary when one's lost their mind -- although perhaps that should be an option -- but the larger-than-life organizations, edifices and assemblies that are often considered "the establishment." Or, at the very least, the established. The United Nations would be a great example. Or, in the realm of educational eminence, there's Harvard and Yale. Joan Rivers could be an institution of the cultural variety, while "marriage" falls squarely in the social category.

The "institution" has been rattling around my old noggin ever since last Wednesday, when I attended the Foreign Policy Association's annual dinner. At said dinner, which was given in honor of Sen. Carl Levin, Eric Dinallo of the New York State Insurance Department, and Egyptian business man Shafik Gabr, among others, there were more than a few references to the FPA as an institution, a fair assessment considering the group has been preeminent in the realm of foreign affairs since its 1918 inception. Most view institutions as pillars of permanence whose existence offers some semblance of order in an otherwise chaotic world. While that's true, institutions' immutability can at times be more permeable than permanent.

Sen. Carl Levin, who, having served 30 years in the Senate, has himself become an institution, caused a stir when, while accepting the FPA medal, he blasted the Dick Cheney and the Bush administration's take on terror investigations, and the endemic inclusion of torture therein. (Video can be viewed at the FPA website.)

Those actions "so dishonored the nation," said Levin, who took specific issue with Dick Cheney's dominance in the decision making. The Senator continued:

Senior officials in the U.S. government solicited information on how to use aggressive interrogation techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of legality, and authorized their use against detainees ... The seeds of Abu Ghraib's rotten fruit were sown at the highest levels of our government.

Some stood and walked out halfway through Levin's remarks. Though some were offended, yes, and later argued that he was simply adding fuel to a fire that distracts the current administration, his remarks struck a different chord within me.

Institutions need not stagnate. They can -- and should -- adjust to changing times. Marriage, of course, has undergone a significant and necessary evolution in recent years, and will no doubt continue to morph in the years ahead. The United Nations, perhaps the most revered international institution, has been discussing the possibility of incorporating climate change into its roundup of international security threats, a move many call an essential -- and timely -- shift.

Institutions are more than just organizations or ideas, but direct reflections of the world in which we live. "Laws and institutions, like clocks, must occasionally be cleaned, wound up, and set to true time," said US minister Henry Ward Beecher. Institutions are born from both human nature and need, and often serve a specific purpose or, in some cases, cause. Laws, too, are institutions and the laws of which Levin spoke informed and perhaps infected its host institution, the United States of America, particularly with regard to the Middle East.

The public, for a time, lived on bloodlust and revenge in the months after 9/11. That vitriol became ingrained -- and was reinforced -- by the government's official position. The new administration has been working vigorously to move past the past, and there's no doubt that President Barack Obama's speech in Cairo this week will play an oversized role in the White House's efforts.

At the FPA dinner, Mr. Gabr, the chairman for the massive ARTOC Group for Investment and Development, described President Obama's Cairo "initiative" as courageous and "visionary." Last November, when it became clear then-President-elect Obama would speak from an Islamic capital, Gabr wrote to the incoming commander in chief and urged him to select Cairo for the speech. The city, wrote Gabr, was "the overwhelmingly logical choice" and his presence would "signal the start of a new and hopeful chapter in US-Islamic relations."

He continued, via letter:

Cairo is the traditional center of the Islamic world -- the historical nexus point for Islamic scholarship, culture, and commerce and a place where civilizations from East, West, North, and South have been drawn together for centuries... Egypt has a long history of friendship and partnership with the United States, and has always shined as a progressive beacon in the Islamic world.

Well, that's only partially true. Though certainly more progressive than some of its Middle Eastern neighbors, Egypt can also be seen as an example of an ill-equipped democracy.

Business ties between Egypt and the United States remain strong, yes, but there's no lack of tension in the political realm. Though a leader of relative liberalism in the Middle East, Egypt's government has also worked at suppressing political opposition, employed torturous interrogation tactics and has a less-than-favorable human rights record.

As The New York Times pointed out on Sunday, President Obama doesn't offer much judgment on whether or not his predecessor should have taken more time and effort to "normalize" Egypt's democratic process. If he's looking to make a difference, President Obama will have to address the flaws within the Egyptian state. Jason Brownlee writes in the Houston Chronicle:

The United States has chided the Egyptian government for abusing detainees even while endorsing, and in some cases exploiting, those same methods. Unless Obama ends U.S. support for prisoner maltreatment abroad, beginning in Cairo, he will not dispel international concerns about America's commitment to the rule of law.

This week's speech not only offers an important symbol of the United States' commitment to opening diplomatic channels in the Arab world, but also will be a chance for President Obama to offer his own contribution to the institution called America. Will he send a message of peaceful cooperation and judicious responsibility, one that will take hold in the heartland and help rectify the bellicose past, or will he gloss over the touchy topics at hand?

Considering the President's "visionary" direction and dedication to a new beginning, there's little doubt in my mind that the behaviors by which our nation lives will be altered by Obama's Cairo speech, a speech that, perhaps, could become an institution in and of itself.