EDITORIAL - Obama in Cairo: The president's fresh start with the Islamic world

Written by Susan Mannella on .

President Barack Obama's speech in Cairo on the need for a "new beginning" in America's approach to the Muslims of the world was, in short, a masterpiece.

It was delivered yesterday at Cairo University, in the largest city in the Arab world, before thousands of people, including Egyptian dissidents, whose presence the American Embassy had requested and President Hosni Mubarak's government had approved.

He cast the speech in terms of his trip to the Middle East and Europe with skill and sensitivity. He preceded Cairo with a visit to Saudi King Abdullah, whose proudest title is keeper of Islam's two holiest places, Mecca and Medina. Mr. Obama will follow Cairo with a visit to Buchenwald, a German concentration camp where Jews were slaughtered during the Holocaust.

The president's speech took on a lot of spiky issues, including the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, women's rights, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, nuclear aspirations, democracy, religious freedom and economic opportunity.

The most urgent action item was his clear commitment to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He made a pledge to have the patience to achieve a resolution of the problem, with two states, Israel and Palestine, finally in place. He mentioned the role of the Palestinian organization Hamas, acknowledging its support among the Palestinians but stating the responsibilities it had to work toward an agreement.

Mr. Obama was clear on Israeli settlements. He said, simply, "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements."

He showed awareness of the problem in U.S.-Muslim relations fomented by two U.S. wars in Muslim-majority countries, Iraq and Afghanistan. He called Iraq "a war of choice" and pledged to carry out his promise to remove all U.S. troops from its cities this month and from the nation as a whole by the beginning of 2012.

He was careful in his comments on Iran, aware that it will hold elections in a few days, and he acknowledged that the United States overthrew a democratically elected government in Iran during the Cold War. With respect to Iran's nuclear ambitions, he urged the need for adherence to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. (Iran has signed it; Israel has not.)

The speech had two particularly poignant points. One was on women's rights. "I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality," he said. Another was his comparison of the Koran, Talmud and Bible on the value of peacemakers. A fair conclusion from the Cairo speech is that this president aspires to be one.

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