OFF THE GRID

Barack Obama Just Changed the World

Jun 5, 09 | 8:53 AM   byMichael Wolff
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The president’s Cairo speech had three overt targets: Muslim extremists, Israel, and George Bush, not necessarily in that order.

He sought to undermine the moral authority of the extremists by radically departing from the language of Anglo colonials. Then he blew a chill into the intransigent heart of Israel by indicating a realignment of official attitudes, relationships, and diplomatic norms. As a topper, he pretty clearly made the case that the intellectual and cultural underpinning of the war on terror and America’s geo-political strategy in the Middle East—the rotten legacy of his predecessor—have been dim and bigoted.

In the annals of speeches, you’d be hard pressed to find one as ambitious as this.

Each of his targets has got to be scrambling now.

If you’re in the Muslim extremism business, demonizing and ridiculing someone of the Obama hue was already a complicated proposition. Now there’s this extraordinary, media-saturated display of Mohammad coming to the mountain and, with no apparent awkwardness or condescension, talking the talk. Obama is the seed of doubt in the getting-old extremism message.

Confounding for the Israelis, they suddenly have to deal with an American president who is assembling a new constituency that combines American liberals (which encompasses American Jews) and, in the Middle East, Muslim moderates. The Israelis long ago gave up logic and moral standing for adept political triangulation—now they’re being out-triangulated. Likely, they won’t handle this well: According to Phil Weiss, who yesterday reported the observations of an American documentary filmmaker in Jerusalem, there are signs of a racist reaction in Israel toward Obama.

And perhaps most important, Obama’s demonstrated the compelling and pleasurable differences between someone who can speak on a wide tonal range, with care and nuance, and by so doing marshal an argument that advances the cause, and someone who repeats rote themes. In this corner, a symphony; in George Bush’s old corner, a blaring one note. Everybody hears the difference.

The pundits and politicians who specialize in the war on terror or the Middle East will now say it’s all in the follow-up. A speech is just a speech. He’s got to walk the walk. This harrumphing is just status-quo stuff—the endless rehash of the steps that must be taken to reform the Muslim character, to placate Israeli fears, to enlist the Saudis in a misbegotten national security partnership.

The right words can do much more than even well-intentioned policy moves.

Since yesterday, everything in the Middle East has been put in motion. The world has changed. That was an extraordinary speech.

More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at michael@newser.com.
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