What President Obama Promised in Cairo

U.S. policy in the broader Middle East over the next four years will be judged in the region according to whether the pledges that President Obama made in Cairo today are kept.

So it's important for Americans to know what those pledges were. Because when right-wing voices in America try to undermine those pledges, they'll be undermining U.S. national security by trying to force President Obama to break faith with the Arabs and Muslims of the world to whom he made those pledges today.

The text and video are here. I encourage Americans to watch the speech in addition to reading the text, because in watching the speech, you also get the reaction of the audience -- in particular, the vigorous applause -- which has the effect of underscoring the pledges that President Obama made.

In what follows, I will highlight some of the President's statements on the Palestinians, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and democracy, and what the President said about extremist violence.

The President said:

"I have unequivocally prohibited the use of torture by the United States, and I have ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed by early next year."

This was wildly popular. Right-wing voices undermine this pledge at our peril.

On the Palestinians, the President said:

"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."

[...]

"Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel's right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine's. The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop."

The whole Arab and Muslim world will be watching to see how President Obama backs up these words if the Israeli government continues to expand settlements in the West Bank and reject a two-state solution. Will the Administration stop protecting Israel's actions with the US veto at the Security Council? Will it support efforts to tie a portion of U.S. aid -- such as the planned increase in military aid -- to real observance of the settlement freeze?

On Iran, the President acknowledged the U.S. role in the overthrow of democracy in Iran in 1953. Then he said:

"I understand those who protest that some countries have weapons that others do not. No single nation should pick and choose which nations hold nuclear weapons. That is why I strongly reaffirmed America's commitment to seek a world in which no nations hold nuclear weapons. And any nation -- including Iran -- should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That commitment is at the core of the Treaty, and it must be kept for all who fully abide by it. And I am hopeful that all countries in the region can share in this goal."

If the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is the framework for U.S. diplomacy, there is no logical reason why the United States and Iran cannot come to agreement on Iran's nuclear program. If the United States accepts Iran's right to enrich uranium, it's quite plausible that Iran will accept a permanent international inspection regime that will protect against diversion of nuclear material to a military program and against proliferation, as Fareed Zakaria argues in Newsweek.

On Iraq, the President said:

"I have made it clear to the Iraqi people that we pursue no bases, and no claim on their territory or resources. Iraq's sovereignty is its own. That is why I ordered the removal of our combat brigades by next August. That is why we will honor our agreement with Iraq's democratically-elected government to remove combat troops from Iraqi cities by July, and to remove all our troops from Iraq by 2012."

President Obama has pledged in Cairo that the Bush Administration's project of establishing Iraq as a permanent military garrison has been formally abandoned by the United States. Let there be no move to revive it.

On "promoting democracy," the President said:

"America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election."

This policy will be tested in the coming days. Lebanon is having parliamentary elections on June 7, which Hizbullah's coalition could win. Iran has presidential elections on June 12. On the basis of the policy that President Obama pledged in Cairo, we can work with any government that emerges from these elections.

On Afghanistan, the President said:

"Make no mistake: we do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan. We seek no military bases there."

President Obama told 60 Minutes that the US must have an "exit strategy" in Afghanistan. But when Representative McGovern tried to attach language to the supplemental requiring that the Pentagon submit an exit strategy to Congress, he was blocked by the House leadership, presumably acting on Administration instructions. If the Administration wants people to believe that the US has no goal for a long-term military presence in Afghanistan, it should start by explaining its exit strategy to Congress.

I was struck by the fact that the crowd vigorously applauded when Obama quoted the Koran thus:

The Holy Koran teaches that whoever kills an innocent, it is as if he has killed all mankind; and whoever saves a person, it is as if he has saved all mankind.

What made the vigorous response striking was the context: Obama was talking about "violent extremists." At least in theory, US policy is focused on separating these violent extremists from the broad population who support many of the goals articulated by "violent extremists" while rejecting their means.

But of course these noble sentiments also apply to the United States, which has killed innocents in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. This week General McChrystal promised the Senate "extreme measures" to avoid civilian casualties in Afghanistan. If the United States continues to kill innocents in Afghanistan - and according to a New York Times report yesterday, even the existing policies to prevent civilian deaths aren't being followed - the Muslim world can point accusingly to President Obama's quote:

Whoever kills an innocent, it is as if he has killed all mankind.