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Obama's Speech: Right Man, Right Place, Right Time

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There are times I am struck by how fortunate we are that Barack Obama was elected president on November 4th, 2008. This is one of those times. Having spent the last 30 years of my life working to bridge the divide between the US and the Arab World, I became increasingly concerned, during the past 8 years, as I watched that divide grow into what I feared might develop into an unbridgeable chasm. The damage done by the alternately reckless and neglectful policies of the last Administration had taken an enormous toll.

How could we change direction?

Watching the president addressing the Muslim world from a podium at the University of Cairo, provided an answer.

One must marvel at the sweep of history that brought this man to that place at this moment. I speak here not only of his personal narrative, so quintessentially American, but the breadth of his vision and his determination to face down overwhelming odds in making this brave effort to restore America's image, reclaim our values and restore frayed relationships.

President Obama's speech to the Muslim and Arab world covered a great deal of ground -- evidence of how many problems we must solve in order to heal the deep divide.

Expectations in the Middle East for this speech had been running high, and not without justification. In his short -- and extraordinary -- career, President Obama had displayed a tendency to take on big issues with big speeches. He had been building up to this moment for over a year, since he first announced his intention to travel abroad to speak directly to the Muslim world. He did not disappoint.

It was, by any measure, a "big speech." More like a "State of the Union" address than the Philadelphia "Race speech" or his remarks on abortion at Notre Dame. It was an agenda-setter, a menu designed to address a wide range of problems across a broad region. It was evidence of the massive undertaking that will be required in order to restore our standing.

In the president's opening remarks, he recognized Islam's contributions to the world, and he spoke appreciatively of the role the Muslim community has played in America. And then he shifted to address the many sources of tension that have plagued our relations. He spoke with firmness and clarity of his resolve to continue to confront extremism, end the war in Iraq, close Guantanamo and ban torture. He then turned to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, displaying remarkable sensitivity to the histories of both peoples. And if that wasn't enough, he addressed the need for a nuclear free Middle East, the importance of the rights of women in the region, spoke of democracy, the need for religious pluralism and laid out a partnership agenda for economic development. It was, as I said, a big speech, laying out a menu of big ideas.

In speaking with friends in the Middle East, in the days that followed, I was impressed with how many parts of the speech resonated. Everyone was able take away something -- peace activists were cheered by his remarkable display of understanding of the sufferings and yearnings of both Israelis and Palestinians, and his determination to resolve this conflict. Advocates for democracy and women's rights and religious minorities took heart in his advocacy for equal rights and reform.

What concerned me, though, was listening to some commentators here in the US, either those with a stake in defending the failures of the past, or those who, for reasons of partisan politics, sought to pick around the edges of his speech looking for some advantage. Some expressed concern that Obama wasn't tough enough. I wondered: did they really want him to deliver another "axis of evil" speech? Others waxed indignant at the president's criticism of torture or his attempt to change our discourse with Muslims by using the terms "violent extremism" instead of their preferred "Muslim terrorists." Still others expressed outrage at what they termed his "moral equivalency." In all of their criticisms, however, they missed the point that this president wasn't posturing, talking "at" Muslims, he was working to engage us in a conversation with them.

In this context, it is important to note that the president was also challenging us. Unlike his predecessor, he understands that if we are to repair the divide, then we too must engage. As we seek to have Muslims understand us, it is equally important that we learn more about Islam, its contributions to our collective history, and our relationships with the many parts of the Muslim world.

All of this, as I noted at the outset, made me so thankful that we have Barack Obama in the White House, at this critical juncture in our history. No one else could have delivered that speech in Cairo, and no one else would have had the vision and courage to do so.