Obama’s Cairo Speech: A Rhetorical Shift in US Imperialism

Barack Obama’s Cairo speech heralds a shift from the Islamophobic rhetoric of the Bush regime, but not from the long-term aims of the U.S. empire.

Predictably, Barak Obama’s speech in Cairo came under hysterical criticism from the right.  Sean Hannity screamed that Obama gave “sympathizers of 9/11” a voice on the world stage, Charles Krauthammer derided the apologetic tone, and Sen. James Inhofe called it “un-American.”  At the same time, Bill O’Reilly called the speech a “big success,” and David Horowitz wrote that conservatives should support Obama on this.

What explains this strange schizophrenia among conservatives?

At root, Obama’s Cairo speech heralds a decisive shift in the rhetoric of U.S. imperialism.  It marks a recognition that the virulent Islamophobic rhetoric of the Bush regime has failed and that it is necessary to begin a process of rebuilding the U.S.’s image in Muslim-majority countries.

But if the speech marked a rhetorical shift, it did not chart new ground in terms of U.S. foreign policy.  Instead, it signals the reemergence of liberal imperialism, packaged deftly and skillfully through the person of Barack Hussein Obama.

Sections of the conservative bloc recognize the need for this shift.  9/11 presented the neoconservatives with an alibi to unleash their vision of U.S. foreign policy.  They seized this unprecedented opportunity to launch a program that would reshape the Middle East and establish a new Pax Americana.  Ideas that were considered off the wall by the Bush Sr. and Clinton administrations, such as the “clash of civilizations” thesis, became dominant.

So all-encompassing were these ideas that even sections of the left accepted the notion that Muslim-majority nations were mired in backwardness and that these nations, as well as domestic Muslim communities, needed to be modernized by an enlightened West (note, for instance, the arguments about bringing democracy to Iraq, banning the hijab under the guise of secularism, etc.).  The lack of a principled anti-racist position within the mainstream antiwar movement then had serious consequences for Arabs and Muslims.

It is therefore important that we begin our assessment of Obama’s speech by acknowledging the shift away from Islamophobic rhetoric.

Rejecting the “clash of civilizations” argument, Obama emphasized the shared common history and common aspirations of the East and West.  Whereas the “clash” discourse sees the West and the world of Islam as mutually exclusive and polar opposites, Obama emphasized “common principles.”  He spoke of “civilization’s debt to Islam” because it “pav[ed] the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment,” and acknowledged the contributions made by Muslims to the development of science, medicine, navigation, architecture, calligraphy, and music.

Obama then took on many of the myths that became commonplace after 9/11.  Breaking with the notion that Islam is inherently violent, Obama emphasized, several times, Islam’s history of tolerance.  He quoted from the Koran to show that Islam does not accept violence against innocent people and pointed to the tolerance shown by Muslims in Spain during the violent period of the Christian Inquisition.

He observed that Indonesia, Bangladesh, Turkey, and Pakistan — all Muslim-majority states — had elected women to leadership roles and added that “the struggle for women’s equality continues in many aspects of American life.”  He thus cast aside the notion that the enlightened West inherently recognizes women’s rights.

He rejected the widely held view that women who wear the veil are “less equal,” stating that this should be a woman’s choice.  And he argued against actions taken by Western nations to dictate what Muslim women should wear, stating: “We cannot disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretence of liberalism.”

Obama subtly acknowledged the U.S.’s double standards.  He admitted that the U.S. had acted contrary to its “ideals” by instituting torture.  He also noted that one nation should not pick and choose who should have nuclear weapons, a reference to the U.S.’s opposition to Iranian nuclear ambitions and its lack of criticism of Israel’s nuclear arsenal.

He further admitted to the U.S. role in the overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq in 1953 and to the ways that colonialism and the Cold War thwarted aspirations in other parts of the world.  Marking a shift from the traditional one-sided emphasis on Israel’s problems, he described the Palestinians as a dispossessed people.

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Yet as significant as these comments are in challenging the racist and Islamophobic rhetoric under the Bush regime, Obama’s policy in the Middle East and South Asia does not signal a break with the policies of previous administrations.  While there are minor points of difference with the Bush administration, Obama’s foreign policy stays within the broader framework of US imperial aims in the region.

Consistent with previous Democratic and Republican presidents going back to 1979, Obama views Iran’s independence from, and resistance to, U.S. dominance in the region as a problem.  While he has called for a halt to further settlements in the Palestinian Occupied Territories, he champions a toothless two-state solution that emerged in policy circles in the U.S. in the early 1990s — and he says nothing about dismantling existing Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

In Iraq, he proposes to withdraw U.S. combat troops while leaving about 50,000 troops still in the country to maintain U.S. control.  And in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Obama “Af-Pak” strategy has only increased U.S. troops and involvement in Afghanistan and created a massive refugee crisis in Pakistan, all to further U.S. oil/natural gas interests and geopolitical aims in the region.

What Obama’s speech represents is a repackaging of U.S. imperial aims in liberal terms.  It heralds a new rhetorical approach built on the ashes of the now widely discredited cowboy diplomacy of the Bush era.

This is why the speech earned praise from even right-wing hacks like David Horowitz.  In an article titled, “Fellow Conservatives, Admit It: Obama Gave a Great Speech,” Horowitz argues that Obama deserves support because he defended U.S. policy in relation to Israel and the Iraq and Afghan wars.  Republican Sen. Richard Lugar similarly dismissed criticisms from Republicans, calling the speech a “signal achievement.”  Speaking about the Middle East peace process, Lugar stated that the speech tried to “strike some of the right notes rhetorically,” while it would have little impact materially.

Indeed, Horowitz and Luger are not alone in seeing the usefulness of such a rhetorical shift.  Over the last few years, in response to the plummeting U.S. image around the world, and in Muslim-majority countries in particular, a section of the political elite has sought to find new approaches to bolstering America’s image.

One such effort got underway in January 2007 under the leadership of former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, former Deputy Secretary of State (under Bush) Richard Armitage, and others.  The group published a document titled, “Changing Course: A New Direction for U.S. Relations with the Muslim World,” which received high praise from political figures like Lugar, Howard Berman and Leon Panetta, and former generals like Anthony Zinni, among others.1

The “Changing Course” document states in its opening pages that distrust of the U.S. in Muslim-majority countries is a product of “[p]olicies and actions — not a clash of civilizations.”  It goes on to argue that to defeat “violent extremists,” military force is necessary but not sufficient, and that the U.S. needs to forge “diplomatic, political, economic, and cultural initiatives.”  The report urges the U.S. leadership to improve “mutual respect and understanding between Americans and Muslims,” promote better “governance and improve civic participation,” and help “catalyze job creating growth” in Muslim countries.

The call to action stated that it would be vital for the next president to talk about improving relations with Muslim majority countries in his or her inaugural speech and to reaffirm the U.S. “commitment to prohibit all forms of torture.”  Obama has carried out these and other suggestions, and the Cairo speech reflects many of the themes raised in this report.

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Yet behind this liberal veneer of promoting “better understanding” and “mutual respect” is a report that in no way, shape, or form attempts to “change course” on U.S. foreign policy objectives.  Instead, it simply urges the use of more subtle and diplomatic means to achieve these aims.

It states that the U.S. should engage Iran while insisting that it conform to non-proliferation standards; create a path for a two-state solution in Israel/Palestine; promote political reconciliation in Iraq and specify the U.S.’s long-term goal; and renew an international commitment to stem the resurgence of extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  In short, it promotes the goals of U.S. imperialism, but through means that mark a shift from the arrogant and unilateralist ways of the Bush regime.

It is no wonder then that Obama’s speech received a lukewarm reception in Muslim-majority countries.  While some have understandably welcomed Obama’s gesture of goodwill and respect, many have expressed skepticism, asking Obama to match his words with deeds.  The sentiment expressed in many newspaper editorials, and by ordinary people, is one that challenges Obama to change course in terms of foreign policy.

This should come as no surprise given the history of U.S. propaganda in Muslim-majority countries and the healthy skepticism that has been built up against it.  To counter the influence of the Soviet Union and present the U.S. in a positive light, the U.S. developed an intensive propaganda strategy that included the use of posters, radio programs, books, pamphlets, interventions in school curricula, etc.

For instance, one short story distributed in Iran was about two boys, one who studied hard and was industrious, and the other who chose communism.  Unsurprisingly, the latter met with an untimely death in a street demonstration, while the former prospered.  Some of the more comical efforts include the USIS office in Iraq distributing posters of the Soviet Union depicted as a “greedy red pig,” complete with a hammer and sickle for a tail!

U.S. Cold War propaganda emphasized the Christian and religious roots of the U.S., in contrast to the godless atheism of the USSR.  Concretely, this meant, for instance, the use by the U.S. embassy in Iraq of posters that featured photographs of Washington D.C.’s Islamic center, meant to depict the U.S. as an inclusive and tolerant nation.  When Obama talks of a mosque in every state of the U.S., he is simply using already tried strategies.

Some of the key themes of Cold War propaganda in the Middle East involved portraying the U.S. as a beacon of freedom and democracy for the world, as a peace-loving nation, and as a friend of Islam in the “common moral front” against the USSR.2  Yet this propaganda could only be so effective, since the U.S.’s actions in toppling democratically elected regimes and supporting Islamists told a different story.

We in the U.S. need to develop a similar skepticism of imperial rhetoric.  Liberal imperialism has a long history in the U.S.  Starting with the Spanish-American War, political elites have argued that U.S. interventions in various countries were for humanitarian goals.

The U.S. claimed to be liberating the Cubans from Spain, yet they simply took over the reigns of power from the latter.  Woodrow Wilson championed the right of nations to self-determination, but conveniently applied it only to the break-up of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires in his “fourteen points” program.

FDR claimed to be championing democracy during the Second World War, yet African Americans did not have the right to vote under Jim Crow laws.  JFK claimed to want to “help” Third World countries to develop economically and to foster democracy and created the Peace Corps for this purpose.  Yet he sent more troops into Vietnam and attempted to overthrow Castro through the “Bay of Pigs” invasion.

In short, the U.S., like all empires, has always sought to disguise its real aims behind fine-sounding phrases and goals.  While Obama’s speech is a step forward in that it eschews the hate-filled Islamophobic rhetoric of the Bush regime, it does little for the real Muslims and Arabs who continue to face discrimination, harassment, rendition, torture, war, and occupation.

To address these problems, a reinvigorated antiwar movement should use Obama’s rhetoric to build a struggle that can champion the rights of Arabs and Muslims around the world and hold Obama accountable to his own words.


1  Available on-line at <www.usmuslimengagement.org/storage/

2  The material in this and the last two paragraphs are taken from National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 78, “US Propaganda in the Middle East — the Early Cold War Version” edited by Joyce Battle.

Deepa Kumar Deepa Kumar is an Assistant Professor of Media Studies at Rutgers University.  She has written many articles on Islamophobia, and Middle East and South Asian politics.  She is currently working on a book titled Allies and Enemies: U.S. Foreign Policy, Political Islam, and the Media.