Abe makes some excellent points regarding the probable meaninglessness of President-Elect Barack Obama’s proposed address to the Muslim world from an Islamic capital. Justin‘s question regarding the value of an English-language speech to non-English speakers is also well taken.
Still, I’m all for experimentation when it comes to public diplomacy–after all, relatively little is at stake. So here’s one approach that might yield positive results: Obama could use his speech to address our differences with the Muslim world directly, and then highlight areas of prospective consensus to calm hostilities towards key U.S. foreign policy objectives.
Obama used this kind of argument very effectively as a candidate. For example, while addressing Republican voters during his speech at the Democratic National Convention, Obama unloaded this stunning rhetorical flourish:
We may not agree on abortion, but surely we can agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country. …
I know there are differences on same-sex marriage, but surely we can agree that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters deserve to visit the person they love in a hospital and to live lives free of discrimination.
You know, passions may fly on immigration, but I don’t know anyone who benefits when a mother is separated from her infant child or an employer undercuts American wages by hiring illegal workers.
So, with this approach in mind, imagine a speech with this sound bite:
We may not agree on the 2003 decision to invade Iraq. But surely we can agree in 2009 that a stable Iraq – free from tyranny, terrorism, and bloodshed – is a worthwhile goal.
And I know that we have strong differences regarding our stances on Israel. But surely we can agree that the Palestinians deserve a homeland – and that justice for the Palestinians cannot rightfully mean injustice for Israelis.
You know, passions fly on the proper execution of our War on Terrorism – as much in Cairo cafes as in Washington coffee shops. But surely we can agree that deliberately killing innocent civilians – no matter the culprits’ political agenda – is the greatest crime known to mankind, and that preventing it is a just cause that demands a globally unified front. I invite you to join and support this front for peace and tolerance today.
Take note: this speech concedes nothing, while pitching key aspects of our foreign policy by emphasizing consensus principles to which reasonable people might subscribe. This is the essence of public diplomacy: selling policies that are otherwise unpopular to moderate sectors of foreign publics.
Of course, it’s impossible to predict whether this might work. It’s also hard to determine what success might look like. But insofar as Obama’s unique background might make the Muslim world more receptive to him, a properly framed address is certainly worth a shot.