Can a Speech Change the World?

We are now almost completely used to the idea of the Big Obama Speech, a dramatic political event with game-changing implications. The history on the topic is short but convincing: There was the Des Moines speech after his Iowa primary victory, the Philadelphia speech on race, the Denver speech at the Democratic National Convention, and a long list of anticipated, if now-forgotten, economic speeches delivered in the heat of the financial meltdown.

After each of these, there was a sense Obama had taken us somewhere we hadn't been before -- that he had explained the unexplainable and that he had given voice to some essential truth. Yesterday was no different. The general sense is that Obama has rewritten the rules of engaging with the Muslim world.

Even the president seems to have bought into the idea that his speeches represent certain landmarks; he refers to "my Prague speech" and "my speech in Turkey." And no doubt what we saw yesterday will be forever known as "the Cairo speech." It may eventually rank in the same category as Harry Truman's eponymous Truman Doctrine address to Congress in 1947 or Ronald Reagan's "Tear Down This Wall" speech delivered at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate in 1987 --- the orations that effectively began and ended the Cold War. In both cases, the president sought to address America's primary foreign-policy problem in the world and fundamentally changed the dynamics of the relationship in question. In Truman's case, the address changed the way the world worked for nearly half a century. In Reagan's, the speech came to be seen as prescient, with the Berlin Wall coming down just two years later.

Obama focused not on a single nation but on a borderless religion: "We meet at a time of great tension between the United States and Muslims around the world -- tension rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate."

Obama's Cairo goal was to open a space in which difficult conversation could lead to fruitful action: "I've come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles -- principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings."

More than any other Obama speech this one needed to go beyond eloquence. The Middle East problem demands action, and fast. After all, can a speech really make us safer? This is a question Obama both asked and answered yesterday:

I know there's been a lot of publicity about this speech, but no single speech can eradicate years of mistrust, nor can I answer in the time that I have this afternoon all the complex questions that brought us to this point. But I am convinced that in order to move forward, we must say openly to each other the things we hold in our hearts and that too often are said only behind closed doors.

Until action follows his words, though, the speech will have to carry the burden.

Obama's speech was as ambitious as the ones made by Truman and Reagan in that it called for a fundamental rethinking of the United States' relationship with the enemy. His approach could not be more different, though. Truman saw a new threat from the USSR after World War II and responded with a policy of containment to stop the spread of communism, and Reagan finally declared the triumph of the Truman Doctrine 40 years later. Obama's goal on Thursday seemed to confront and contain the threat of terrorism against the United States by engaging the enemy in a dialogue about our common interests, rather than our ideological differences. Instead of launching a prolonged confrontation in which the strategy is to hope for the other side's eventual collapse, Obama promoted a search for common ground.

"So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, those who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity," Obama said. "And this cycle of suspicion and discord must end."

This tactical shift -- from confrontation to cooperation -- is so fundamental that it will certainly revive the criticism that he is weak and naive and that he is making us less safe by apologizing to terrorists.

But Obama has fully embraced his inner pragmatist. He has made a point of challenging the status quo when that status quo is based on ideology -- I'm thinking of Cuba and Venezuela. He has made the once politically daring seem obvious, logical, and sensible.

It makes sense to try to fight the war on terrorism through ideology when the other side can't match you militarily but can beat you on the message front. It also makes sense to take away the other side's argument that they are disrespected and ignored. And it makes sense to talk about common interests and ambitions rather than stigmatize a whole religion by tossing it into the terrorist category. There's no guarantee this strategy will work, but it makes sense to try.

Obama did all of that in Cairo, and perhaps years down the road another president will give a triumphant speech in another Muslim capital, maybe in a state that does not exist today. And maybe then, Cairo will be remembered as the "Islam Is Part of America" speech or the "Hope of All Humanity" speech.

"Let there be no doubt: Islam is a part of America," Obama said. "And I believe that America holds within her the truth that regardless of race, religion, or station in life, all of us share common aspirations -- to live in peace and security; to get an education and to work with dignity; to love our families, our communities, and our God. These things we share. This is the hope of all humanity."

Hell of a speech. Don't you feel safer already?