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Sunday, June 07, 2009

Obama does Cairo

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By now, many of you would already have heard about it, maybe even watched the speech live earlier in the week, or seen the video.

But Walski thought that it deserved to be posted. This one comes from the White House page on YouTube, the speech in its entirety.

You can also read along – full transcript available here (via the Huffington Post). Think of it as spoken-word Karaoke.
(shorter part-versions, and some thoughts, in the full post)

But if your attention span can’t last 55 minutes in one sitting, however, the same speech can be viewed in 6 parts (hopefully your attention span can handle 9 minutes at a time):
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
(all via YouTube)

Because of the publicity this speech received prior to it being delivered, a lot of expectations were built up, over what Obama would actually deliver.

By any measure, it wasn't a perfect speech. It couldn't have ever been - perfection would mean that it delivers what each and every one of us wanted it to deliver. In fact this is admitted to by Obama himself, around about the 4:40 mark:

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.

Perhaps one characteristic of Obama's speeches, in contrast to his predecessor, is that Barrack Obama speaks in full, intelligible sentences. Which some have said in the past, may not be a good thing, because the majority of American people simply aren’t smart enough to understand. But Walski digresses…

All kidding aside, however, Obama’s intention with his speech in Cairo was not one of solving complex and convoluted problems mired in history in one fell swoop. Instead, it sought a new beginning.

And that new beginning sought is based on partnership, and of the realization that both sides of the so-called “clash of civilizations” need to acknowledge that the other are not simply “crude stereotypes”. But that proposition is one that will be difficult to achieve.

Walski acknowledges the fact that stereotypes are difficult to break. Sometimes the task takes not one, but many generations, to achieve. We see the same struggle on our own shores, made more difficult by the simple fact that many would rather choose to perpetuate those stereotypes.

Obama rightly says that the world of the 21st century is one that is shared, and that problems occurring in one part of the world eventually affects the whole, using the financial crisis and the recent AH1N1 flu as examples.

The speech addresses some areas of continued tension – violent extremism, Iraq and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Some have been disappointed that what Obama said may not have fully met their expectations. But one thing clear is that in resolving the world’s problems, the responsibility lies in the hands of all involved.

On democracy, Obama had some things to say, which Walski thought were universally relevant (emphasis by myAsylum).

I know there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years, and much of this controversy is connected to the war in Iraq. So let me be clear: no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.

That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people. Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. 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. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.

There is no straight line to realize this promise. But this much is clear: governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure. Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments - provided they govern with respect for all their people.

This last point is important because there are some who advocate for democracy only when they are out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others. No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.

Certainly, the points highlighted are relevant to Malaysia, as well. That it's not enough to hold elections once every 4 or 5 years to call oneself democratic, when in between, the interests of the party are held to be more important than the interests of ALL the people.

Obama also touched on women’s rights, development and opportunities, in addition to the threat of nuclear proliferation.

To Walski, while the speech was far from perfect, there are a few positive points to take away. The first is that to forge forward, partnership is the key criteria, and not subjugation of one over the other. Second, acceptance and understanding is a two-way street.

At the end of it all, however, a speech is just that – talk. And the proof of the proverbial pudding is what action ensues. That, we’ll have to wait and see. Obama has only recently completed his first 100 days in office, and so far, for Walski, his tenure can be seen more in the light of positivity.

While Walski personally thought that Obama’s speech in Cairo exhibited a hand extended in partnership, we should also never forget that his primary role is as the leader of his own nation. Barrack Obama has inherited a lot of mess that his administration must help steer away from, and that is a daunting task.

Naturally, there were criticisms of his speech in Cairo. The most stinging one came this The Guardian UK article, penned by Ali Albunimah, calling the speech akin to a “Bush in sheep’s clothing”. That nothing whatsoever has (or will) change in America’s stance to the world. Same shit, different person and style, in other words.

While there are valid criticisms contained in the piece, one should remember that Obama is a statesman. And while a statesman can, and in the case of Obama does, make America accountable for the past screw ups of his nation, these admissions should be done without outright condemnation of his predecessors.

But condemnation is there, nonetheless, if you listen carefully, and read the transcript. At least it does appear that way to Walski.

For far too long, America’s image has been one of being the world’s policeman, enforcing their ideals upon the rest of the world. What Walski has seen, so far, with Obama, is a slightly different stance.

It is the stance more of a facilitator, rather than a dictator. Yes, there are ideals that many might see as unmistakably “American” in nature. But scratch the surface, and you’ll find that these are in fact universal values – liberty, mutual respect, and the right to choose how one lives their life. And scratch a little more, you’ll find that these values transcend cultures and faiths.

It’s sometime more important to look for the positivity, rather than nitpick the absent details of our expectations.