Barack Obama gave perhaps the most important speech of his young presidency Thursday, offering a stirring reminder of the oratorical gifts that propelled a young African-American of limited political experience to the leadership of the United States and the free world.
Speaking from the heart of the Arab world and touching on a wide range of critical issues, from religious extremism and nuclear weapons to women's rights and economic development, Mr. Obama returned time and again to the theme of shared purpose and the quest for common ground. His goal was to cut through the tensions and suspicions that often poison relations between the Muslim world and the West by repeatedly pointing to the opportunity for mutual benefits.
It is hard to imagine a worthier objective, and with his eloquence in Cairo the president distinguished himself and our nation.
In a speech laced with small indications of respect (such as referring to Muslims' sacred book as the "Holy Quran"), Mr. Obama promised "a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the word," and he may be uniquely positioned to fulfill that promise. He opposed the deeply unpopular Iraq war. His background and Arabic middle name give him a level of comfort around Muslims that no previous president has possessed. And he appears to take seriously a host of Muslim grievances.
The conflict between Israel and the Arab world has been a graveyard for American diplomacy over multiple presidencies, but Mr. Obama tackled it head-on, not only with tough words but also with deep understanding for both sides. In forcefully denouncing Holocaust denial, which is far too common in the Arab world, he acknowledged Israelis' primal fear of annihilation. He also noted, correctly, that "the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable."
Mr. Obama reiterated his strong opposition to settlement building - an increasingly brave stand - and again called on Hamas to renounce violence and recognize Israel (although he is not yet prepared to say what he would be willing to do if settlements and terrorism continue).
On the fraught question of democracy in the Arab and Muslim world, Mr. Obama said "we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments - provided they govern with respect for all their people." This is an interesting formulation (the seed of an Obama Doctrine, perhaps?) that theoretically could allow him to reject electoral outcomes in Lebanon and the Palestinian areas that empower terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
Some are accusing Mr. Obama of engaging in apologetics and refusing to confront the Arab world on terrorist violence. This is nonsense, of course; he reminded the world of the Sept. 11 attacks within his first few paragraphs.
"No single speech can eradicate years of mistrust, nor can I answer in the time that I have all the complex questions that brought us to this point," Mr Obama noted. That's true, but in Cairo on Thursday he made an excellent start.