What Obama Said And What He Didn't

In a nearly 6,000-word address Thursday extending an olive branch to the Muslim world, President Barack Obama managed never to utter the one word that comes to mind most often when many Americans think about Islam: terrorism.

While both the White House and the Pentagon denied earlier this year that the Obama administration had issued orders to stamp out the phrase “war on terror,” the president’s decision to rely on the word “extremism” throughout his high-profile speech made clear his desire to execute a rhetorical shift.

More than that, Obama sought to decouple Islam entirely from those who perpetrate violence.

“Islam is not part of the problem in combating violent extremism — it is an important part of promoting peace,” Obama said.

It’s just one aspect of his speech that seems sure to draw fire from conservatives, and particularly those who are strong supporters of Israel. Even some in Obama’s own party – already critical of his firmer line against Israel – seem sure to resist some of his harsher language, including comparing the “intolerable” plight of the Palestinians to African slaves in the United States

"This is another Obama blame-America-first moment," said John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush. 

Here’s a look at how various players are likely to react to what Obama had to say during his highly anticipated address, and perhaps more importantly, what he didn’t say:

The Israelis

What he said: Yes, it was a speech to the Muslim world, but no one took it on the chin from Obama more than the Israelis.

His historical comparisons were unmistakable: As the president called on Palestinians to “abandon violence,” he noted that “for centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation.” He also seemed to compare the Palestinian struggle to that of South African blacks against the apartheid regime.

In Israel, Obama’s implicit comparisons are likely to draw ire. Look for people to compare the reference to President Jimmy Carter’s 2006 book, “Peace Not Apartheid,” which deeply angered Israelis and many American Jews.

One pro-Israel analyst sought to downplay Obama’s slavery and South Africa references as “dog whistles to the fringe left.” But others are likely to be less forgiving.

And Obama called on those who would seek to deny the Holocaust – a clear reference to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, without naming him – to stop denying it, or Israel’s right to exist. Of the Holocaust, Obama said, "Six million Jews were killed. ... Denying that fact is baseless, ignorant, and hateful."

What he didn’t say: Obama repeated his call that “it’s time for settlements to stop” – but as before, did not say what would happen if Israel goes ahead with plans to expand them, as Israeli leaders say they’ll do. He also offered few new details of how he would bring the Israelis and Palestinians together for further peace talks.

The Palestinians

What he said: Palestinians will be pleased with much of the same Obama rhetoric that will gall some Israelis – and also seems likely to stoke the debate over whether Obama is as devoted to Israel as past presidents or has more pro-Palestinian sympathies.

Among the Palestinians, Obama also will get points for twice using the word “Palestine” — it gives a concreteness to the prospect of a Palestinian state. While diplomats around the world routinely refer to “Palestine,” American officials have long shied away from the word.

Some militant Palestinians who see themselves at war with Israel may take umbrage at Obama’s suggestion that they do not have a right to defend themselves through the use of force.

“Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed,” he said in Cairo. “It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered.”

What he didn’t say: Again, Palestinians looking for concrete action by Obama would be disappointed. Obama left out any consequences if Israel goes ahead with the settlements, keeps tight reins on Gaza, or refuses to negotiate towards a two-state solution. Some are sure to portray Obama as all talk, but still ultimately beholden to Israel and American Jews.


What he said: Iran got off pretty easy in Obama’s speech. Maybe he didn’t want to give Iran’s saber-rattling too much attention, but the nuclear ambitions of the country many national security officials view as the biggest threat to world peace got only a few paragraphs from the U.S. president.

“This is not simply about America’s interests. It is about preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that could lead this region and the world down a hugely dangerous path,” Obama said.

Obama alluded to but didn’t dwell on Iran’s misdeeds, such as the country’s support for terrorism. And on the nuclear issue, he made his most explicit statement to date approving of a civilian nuclear energy program for Iran — if the Islamic Republic gives up any aspirations for atomic weapons.

“Any nation – including Iran – should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That commitment is at the core of the Treaty, and it must be kept for all who fully abide by it,” the president said.

What he didn’t say: How long he’d wait for Iran to shape up, and what will happen if it doesn’t. Obama has said before he’s willing to wait until the end of the year to see if his diplomatic outreach to the Iranians works – a timetable that Israel views as merely giving Iran more time to develop the bomb.

The “Arab street”

What he said: A lot of Obama’s statements were designed to convey to Arabs and Muslims that he is deeply familiar with their religion, culture and concerns. It’s an obvious and probably essential thing for American leaders to do as they try to build bridges with Islamic followers. However, it’s a tricky thing for Obama because of the trouble he had during the presidential campaign with widespread rumors that he is a Muslim.

“I am a Christian, but my father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims,” Obama told the crowd at Cairo University.

Near the beginning of the Cairo speech, he broke out some Arabic to offered the traditional Muslim greeting of “assalaamu alaykum” or “peace be with you.” Barack Hussein Obama proudly recited his full name, offered a quote from the Quran and spoke of hearing the call to prayer when he lived in Indonesia as a boy.

And he offered some blunt talk to Muslims, saying they shouldn’t be so quick to demonize America – just as he told Americans not to be so quick to demonize Muslims. “That same principle must apply to Muslim perceptions of America. Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire,” Obama said.

What he didn’t say: In saying that “Islam has a proud tradition of tolerance,” Obama glossed over the fact that religious minorities are treated very poorly, by the public and the government, in most Muslim countries. And as he sought to play up his Muslim roots, Obama made no mention of the Muslim rumors that dogged him in the campaign – or the lengths his campaign went to knock them down, knowing how damaging that perception could have been to Obama the candidate.

U.S. Muslims

Obama repeatedly mentioned Muslims in the U.S. and suggested they could play an important role in improving America’s image in the Arab world, noting that many of them have above-average incomes and education levels.

He also mentioned one of their biggest concerns: the difficulty in finding charities to fulfill the Islamic obligation for Zakat, a form of tithing, and promised to work to clear the way to ease donations.

What he didn’t say: Obama didn’t mention that the contributions problem has arisen because so many of the leading Muslim charities have been accused of, or convicted of giving aid to terrorist groups like Palestinian Islamic Jihad or Hamas. Under Bush, the federal government refused to tell the Muslim community which charities were considered legit. Obama’s team is taking steps to do that or set up entirely new groups.

The Republicans

Some conservatives are already jumping on Obama’s speech as part of an “apology tour.”

In Cairo, Obama gave the first-ever acknowledgement from a U.S. president for America’s “role in the overthrow of a democratically-elected Iranian government” – referring to the U.S.
support for the coup against Iran’s popular prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, in 1953.

In comments that will also be portrayed as an apology, Obama told the Cairo audience that the U.S. overreacted to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“The fear and anger that it provoked was understandable, but in some cases, it led us to act contrary to our ideals,” he said. “I have unequivocally prohibited the use of torture by the United States, and I have ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed by early next year.”

What he didn’t say: Obama’s reference to Iraq as a “war of choice” will also be taken as a potshot at Bush, though it implicates a host of American politicians, including a host of Obama’s fellow Democrats, including his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton.

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